Substance policies for Florida, New College undergoing evolution

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In the past few months a number of changes to drug and alcohol policies have been made at both the state and New College level. These changes could have significant consequences for those students who choose to use substances, legal or otherwise. The changes provide a possible way out for unwitting offenders and those seeking to escape legal troubles, and also have the potential to save lives on campus.

A number of judges in Florida – two circuit and one federal – recently ruled that Florida’s drug possession law is unconstitutional because it expressly eliminates a requirement of intent to commit the crime.

In 2002, the Florida Legislature changed the existing law to express that knowledge of possession need not be shown in order to convict a person in a drug possession case, though the defense can choose to raise that issue at trial.

“It reaches beyond those who willfully do wrong, beyond those who negligently do wrong, beyond those who carelessly do wrong, and includes within its wingspan those who meant no wrong,” South Florida Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch wrote in his opinion.

“Even people who are normally diligent in inspecting and organizing their possessions may find themselves unexpectedly in violation of this law,” Manatee County Circuit Judge Scott Brownell wrote.

“Other states have rejected such a draconian and unreasonable construction of the law that would criminalize the ‘unknowing’ possession of a controlled substance,” Florida federal judge Mary Scriven wrote in her opinion, finding that the law was unconstitutional “on its face.”

“Consider the student in whose book bag a classmate hastily stashes his drugs to avoid imminent detection. The bag is then given to another for safekeeping. Caught in the act, the hapless victim is guilty [under the current law],” she wrote.

These rulings throw into question thousands of convictions and pending cases.

Some judges have upheld the constitutionality of the state’s drug possession law.

“The Legislature has spoken,” Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes wrote. “It is through the Legislature that the people speak, and through the enactment of [the drug law] the people have declared that the possession of controlled substances is a dangerous offense for which the state should be relieved of proving the often difficult-to-prove element of mens rea [or guilty knowledge].”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is appealing Judge Scrivens’ decision.

While those who are charged under Florida’s drug possession law may have their case dismissed if Judge Scrivens’ ruling is upheld on appeal, the appeals process will likely take many years for an issue that could ultimately be resolved in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In related news, New College has a recently-revised substance policy.

“The biggest change has been the introduction of the medical amnesty clause in the policy,” Associate Dean of Students Tracy Murry said of the school’s new Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) policy.

Murry explained that if a student requires medical attention because of substance use, that student will be exempt from punishment under the policy.  The exemption also extends to students seeking medical attention for another. Regardless of the medical amnesty clause, students can also be referred to the Counseling and Wellness Center.

The only time the medical amnesty could be denied is if the student refuses medical attention offered to her.

Another change to the policy allows for those students over the age of 21 to drink alcohol on campus in designated areas, which includes all residence halls, Z Green, the Crease and Palm Court. Crafters of the new policy also created gradated violations in order to distinguish between a student whose only violation is underage possession and a student cited for Hazardous Intoxication or Abusive Coercion, “whereby an individual repeatedly applies unwanted social pressure in an attempt to induce another to consume alcohol.”

The changes to the New College AOD Policy were part of a two-year-long collaborative process between Murry, several students appointed to a special committee by the NCSA and alumnus Logan Cobb (’07), who chaired the committee.

“First, federal law requires that an institution of higher learning that receives federal funds have an AOD policy explicitly stated and revised every two years,” Cobb told the Catalyst in an e-mail. “New College did not have an explicitly stated AOD policy and had certainly not revised it within the past two years. Secondly, according to the community board, some students who had received alcohol citations felt that the rules were not stated explicitly and had been enforced arbitrarily. It is hoped that by explicating the policy, students will have a better sense of the behaviors that are acceptable and any potential consequences they may be subject to.”

The new policy was agreed to by the NCSA cabinet and the Administration, and was approved by the Board of Trustees in June. The policy was also voted on and approved by the student body in the first Towne Meeting of the Year.

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