Why the Alcohol and Other Drugs Policy Has Failed

Drugs are bad

(Ethan Corey)– A simple guideline for any policy should be that the policy does not do more harm than the problem it attempts to solve. Yet, in the case of the College’s policy on ‘alcohol and other drugs’ (AOD), the opposite seems to be the case. Where the policy should encourage safe behavior, it pushes students into risky situations; where the policy should recognize students’ right to make their own decisions about their bodies, it limits student autonomy; where the policy should work to help students with drug and alcohol problems, it takes a punitive stance that perpetuates alcoholism and addiction. On these and many other fronts the College’s AOD policy fails to serve the needs or interests of the students it is meant to protect.

Alcohol and drug use is an inevitable part of college life. According to the spring 2012 National College Health Assessment (NCHA), 79 percent of college students reported that they used alcohol, 41 percent reported marijuana use and nine percent said that they had used hallucinogens, cocaine or MDMA. While statistics specific to the College aren’t publicly available, anecdotal evidence would suggest that they’re fairly similar. Thus, a prohibitionist AOD policy (i.e. one that simply puts a blanket prohibition on AOD use) like we have at the College makes a vast segment of the student body liable to disciplinary sanctions, including parental notification, disciplinary probation, Room Draw or housing limitations, community service or suspension. One need only glance at the campus crime log to get an idea of how much time the College spends disciplining students for AOD violations.

While it’s certainly true that a first-time offense likely won’t result in anything more severe than referral to alcohol education (even if it’s an offense for marijuana, which seems strange to say the least), the severity of sanctions ramps up fast; second violations nearly universally lead to parental notification, and a third can lead to disciplinary probation and even suspension. The question arises, what does the College gain from having such severe penalties? There is virtually no evidence that the severity of sanctions decreases AOD use, and the sanctions often do more harm than good. If a student truly has a problem with AOD use or abuse, disciplining the student will likely only serve to make the problem worse; if the student’s AOD use is responsible and under control, then harsh sanctions will create a problem where none exists.

As a quick aside, the fact that the College is more lenient than some schools is largely irrelevant to this discussion; if the policies don’t work, why does it matter that other institutions are worse? Moreover, many of the College’s peers, including Harvard, Yale and Middlebury, have more tolerant policies than the College that focus on reducing the harms of AOD use rather than prohibiting use outright.

In addition, the prohibitionist model creates problems even when students aren’t being directly punished. Because students face the risk of punishment, students who use AOD must do so in relative secrecy, downing shots inside of their dorm rooms rather than sipping wine in the common room. In fact, evidence suggests that prohibitionist attitudes towards alcohol and other drugs actually encourages risky behaviors like binge drinking. Honestly, this just makes common sense — when you normalize social activities and bring them out into the open, it’s easier to promote safe behavior; when you push activities underground, you have no way to ensure that they are being done responsibly.

A prohibitive stance towards alcohol and drug use also infantilizes students and limits their autonomy. Nearly every student at the College is an adult, meaning that society considers us mature enough to vote, serve in the military, manage our own finances et cetera. Yet, when it comes to alcohol and other drugs, the College says that students aren’t responsible enough to make their own decisions about their body. Alcohol and other drug use primarily affects the user, meaning that, just as the College should have no say about what students choose to eat or whom students choose to have consensual sex with, the College has no business dictating what substances students are allowed to put in their body. If the College wants students to act like responsible adults, it should treat students like responsible adults. Telling students that they lack the maturity to make their own decisions about their bodies is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps more importantly, the College’s prohibitionist policies marginalize students who need help with AOD-related problems. The College has no specifically-designated AOD counselor, no programs for students struggling with alcoholism or addiction and very few educational outreach programs designed to promote responsible decisions about alcohol and other drugs. As the report released last month by the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct noted, “in a college as selective as Amherst, the eventual pursuit of a life of consequence for our students is most likely to be derailed by issues of emotional and physical health including substance abuse.” If the College really wants to deal with binge-drinking and other AOD issues, it seems logical that the College would devote resources to address the harms created substance abuse and addiction, rather than waiting for students dealing with substance abuse or addiction to get themselves kicked out of the College.

At this point, I would like to address the issue of the College’s legal obligations. While some defend the College’s prohibitionist stance on AOD use by reference to the Drug Free Schools Act and other laws regarding AOD policy at colleges and universities, the College’s current policies go above and beyond its legal obligations. The Drug Free Schools Act requires that colleges and universities receiving federal funding “clearly prohibit, at a minimum, the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by students and employees.” Yet, as schools like Harvard or Middlebury show, prohibiting illegal activity need not entail harsh punitive sanctions or wide-scale enforcement efforts by campus police. The law does not dictate the severity of the sanctions for AOD, and it only mandates that enforcement be consistent, not omnipresent. The College can still prohibit illegal activities while creating an environment that respects students’ rights to bodily autonomy and encourages safe and responsible use of alcohol and other drugs.

In fact, the College appears to be failing to enforce AOD regulations consistently, in direct violation of the Drug Free Schools Act’s provisions. One need only glance at the College’s confused response towards beer pong to see this in practice. Last year, beer pong was largely ignored by campus police unless a party was broken up for other reasons; this year, a week doesn’t go by without at least one beer-pong crackdown showing up in the campus crime log, despite the administration’s claim that there has been no change in the College’s policy on drinking games. Additionally, sanctions for marijuana violations have been applied highly inconsistently over the past several years. Anecdotally, I know of several students receiving four, five and even nine citations for marijuana without receiving anything more severe than disciplinary for one semester, yet this year I know of one student receiving disciplinary probation until graduation for his third offense, and another who was suspended for his fourth.

Finally, I would like to re-iterate a point made by the anonymous letter-writer yesterday: the AOD policy creates an unnecessarily antagonistic relationship between students, administration and campus police. Ideally, the administration and campus police exist to ensure student well-being and safety, yet in practice the police spend more time shutting down parties and busting students toking on Memorial Hill than they do protecting student safety, and, if the crime log is any indication, the Dean’s Office meets with dozens of students every week for petty AOD violations.

The College’s AOD policy, simply put, is more of a problem than a solution. It fails to effectively limit unsafe behavior; it helps create a toxic and unhealthy social environment on campus; and it unnecessarily subjects students to the risk of probation and suspension for ultimately victimless ‘crimes.’ To better serve students, the College needs to undertake a wholesale reconsideration of its policies and procedures and gain a better understanding of why students choose to use alcohol and other drugs in the first place. I hope all members of the College community will consider how AOD use affects life on campus and how the College can create a policy to best serve students. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.