Syracuse, NY — A Syracuse University student is taking his school to court for suspending him over a “small quantity” of marijuana found hidden last October among some chocolate-covered strawberries, according to a complaint in Onondaga County Supreme Court.
The third-year student from Queens was suspended for a year, ordered to do 40 hours of community service, remain employed or taking classes elsewhere, submit three character references and write a personal essay on what he learned from the ordeal when reapplying for admission, according to the school’s decision, filed in court paperwork.
But the student, who was allowed to file his lawsuit anonymously, says that punishment doesn’t fit the crime and “shocks the senses” of fairness. The student’s lawyer, Melissa Swartz, declined to identify him to Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard. In court papers, she described him as a 6-foot, 1-inch tall, brown-skinned Hispanic with long hair down to his waist that he wore in a ponytail.
At a time when New York State is legalizing recreational marijuana use, the university has made it clear that it still considers use by its students a big no-no.
“In regards to the argument for inappropriate sanctions, the Appeals Board would remind the Respondent that regardless of the current laws or public sentiment regarding marijuana, the Respondent has been charged with violating the university’s conduct policy,” the student’s suspension decision reads.
SU is not alone in taking a hardline against marijuana use by students, even in states where use is legal otherwise. That’s because marijuana use is still a federal crime, and schools who turn a blind eye could jeopardize their streams of government funding, according to the federal government. That’s true even for private schools, like SU, which still receive federal money for various projects.
In regards to the October 2020 case, the student maintains it wasn’t even his marijuana among the chocolate-covered strawberries. Here’s what happened:
The student was bringing a backpack to a friend, who was in Covid-19 quarantine at the Sheraton Syracuse University Hotel (that’s where students with exposure to Covid-19 have been isolated).
As the bag was being stored for the friend to come and get it, workers smelled marijuana coming from inside, according to a summary in the lawsuit.
When checked, workers found a box with the chocolate-covered strawberries and a green leafy substance, later confirmed to be marijuana.
The friend denied that it was her marijuana, according to the lawsuit. The student says that he picked up the bag from a sorority and brought it to her as a favor. He says he doesn’t know where the marijuana came from, either.
But the Appeals Board noted that the student had told a public safety officer that the friend had left the bag at his house. The student did not explain who might have had access to it between that point and when he brought it to the Sheraton, the board added.
It’s unclear how much marijuana was found in the backpack. Swartz described it as a personal amount, noting that the University did not seek to press criminal charges against her client.
Given the nature of the case, Swartz argues that SU’s response was unfair and had a huge impact on the student’s life.
“He has been: (1) treated like a criminal, (2) branded as a dangerous individual, (3) labeled as a drug dealer, and (4) forced to disengage from academic life, including missing numerous assignments and having to ignore professors inquiring as to his attendance,” Swartz wrote in her complaint.
In late February, SU lawyers agreed to allow the student to stay enrolled at the university until a state Supreme Court Justice rules on the lawsuit.
Both sides are due in court next month.