When Every Day is 4/20—Lessons from Colorado

There are currently seven states (Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Massachusetts, Nevada, Maine) and the District of Columbia who have passed legislation allowing the legal purchase and use of marijuana for persons age 21 and up. Twenty additional states have enacted medical marijuana legislation, which varies state to state. Amendment 64 passed in Colorado in November of 2012, allowing adults over the age of 21 to carry up to one ounce of marijuana while traveling. Stores selling recreational marijuana officially opened in Colorado on January 1, 2014. As the first state to legalize, we wanted to share some lessons we learned along the way.


While it is legal for residents and visitors over the age of 21 to possess marijuana in the state of Colorado, it is a violation of the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act (DFSCA) to be in possession on campus. Since marijuana is still federally illegal, it is also a violation to be in possession while in a National Park, or at many ski resorts. For international students studying in the United States on a F1 visa- marijuana is still federally illegal and a violation of visa status, and can potentially result in deportation. In 2016, the city of Denver legalized public consumption- but it is still illegal to consume in public anywhere else in the state.


Rules and sanctions for alcohol can be a close parallel to marijuana on campus. When adding marijuana to your campus policies and orientation materials, it can be helpful to examine current processes for alcohol (e.g. confiscation of alcohol from students under 21). Marijuana can be a trickier to dispose of than alcohol. Jessica Neuwirth of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recommends putting marijuana in a doggie bag and throwing out with the rest of the trash. It is not recommended to flush marijuana, though marijuana can be disposed of in Community Take Back boxes. Working with on campus police or community partnerships to put together a responsible disposal plan for confiscated marijuana is important.


When it comes to alcohol prevention on campus, efforts like the CollegeAIM help delineate evidence-based practices based on cost and efficacy. Since marijuana legalization is fairly recent, we don’t have the same amount of evidence-based programs to build a similar framework. It is important to underscore that successful prevention efforts must be part of a larger campus effort. In speaking with campus teams across the state, self-education really is the best strategy. Peer educators and prevention practitioners need to make sure to be aware of the new intricacies of marijuana access in order to provide prevention education and promote healthy decisions on campus.

For example:

  • Dabbing isn’t just a dance: it’s highly concentrated THC oil (commonly known as shatter, wax, or Butane hash oil).
  • 4:20 may be a recognized day/time of marijuana consumption- but have you heard of 7:10? (when held upside down, a digital clock showing the time 7:10 spells OIL).
  • The human brain and body continue developing until age 25, and heavy marijuana consumption can influence that development.
  • Most overdoses in Colorado have occurred because of the inappropriate use of edibles.

As prevention teams, we have a responsibility to adapt current evidence-based practices and contribute to the successes and lessons learned in marijuana prevention. Using Alcohol Skills Training Programs (ASTP) as a model, how can we engage in continued educational dissemination efforts regarding negative marijuana use impacts, as well as engage in conversations with students presenting with high risk/heavy use? To identify potentially hazardous use and have one-on-one conversations, how can Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) be utilized with the CUDIT-R (Cannabis Use Disorder Inventory Tool, Revised) instead of the AUDIT? What environmental changes and policies need to be modeled off of the success we have seen with tobacco prevention?

The Coalition of Colorado Campus Alcohol and Drug Educators (CADE), a project managed by NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, has been awarded funding through the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health to provide training, technical assistance, and fiscal resources to help adapt current evidence-based programs in prevention to help address campus marijuana use.

There is much to be excited about in the field of collegiate marijuana prevention, but we have learned in the past four years in Colorado that we must take lessons learned from collegiate alcohol prevention, we must allow harm reduction programs to be integrated in a comprehensive campus prevention program, and as a field we need to provide skills to students to build their well-being and health literacy so that the decisions made will be in line with their academic, social, and vocational goals.