At Wesleyan and at other institutions of higher learning, public discussion of drug culture is often viewed as taboo. However, the late-February drug-related hospitalizations of students started an open dialogue at the University regarding drug policy, drug safety, and drugs’ physiological effects on the body. These conversations, many of which have taken place in the sphere of the Allbritton Center’s “Drugs, Harm and the Campus” April lecture series, are now shedding light on drug-related issues in an effort to safeguard the health and well-being of students at the University.
The first talk, “Drug Use @ Wes,” was organized as a panel discussion that focused on the administrative measures being taken with respect to illegal drug use at Wesleyan. Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Whaley moderated the dialogue, and panelists included Director of Health Education Tanya Purdy; Ashley Fine ’15; and Beth DeRicco, who coordinates higher education outreach for Caron Treatment Centers.
The panelists presented University-specific data concerning campus drug use that debunk misconceptions regarding its prevalence at Wesleyan. According to the statistics, students at Wesleyan are slightly more likely to use drugs than the reported national average. However, Purdy pointed out that perceived interest in the culture is far higher than its actual interest. In fact, out of 420 respondents in a 2013 campus-wide AlcoholEdu survey, 64.76 percent of students reported that they had not experimented with any type of drug in the two weeks prior to having taken the survey.
“Students who don’t…do drugs feel like they’re the only ones on campus who don’t engage in those behaviors,” Whaley said. “The question then is not only what do we do about the people who are using, but also how do we support the students who are not?”
DeRicco also noted a certain level of cohesion regarding the pervasiveness of drugs at other liberal arts institutions similar to Wesleyan, stating that small, private schools have a profile of alcohol and drug use that is slightly higher than at larger institutions. She added that although a major goal of the University is to protect students, students must also recognize which types of behavior have potential consequences that outweigh any possible benefits.
“Wesleyan’s philosophy is to weave a safety net that is somewhat protective, allowing students to take reasonable risks as they grow, mature, learn, and develop, as young people and as students,” DeRicco said. “The backdrop [consists of] what is legal, what can be considered too risky as a community, and how can we promote health and well-being so that each person can grow to their capacity? I think there are decisions that every campus has to make about that.”
During the panel, questions were raised with respect to the legislative measures being taken at Wesleyan concerning substance use and abuse.
“The federal government requires that we address underage drinking and illegal drug use,” Whaley said. “We need federal funding, and that’s the reality…. We need federal funding for financial aid, for research, et cetera. So we’re required to have policies that are in line with federal policies, and not necessarily state policies…. The feds hold the purse strings, and we are expected to have clear policies that prohibit underage [drinking] and prohibit illegal drug use, and we are expected to have reasonable enforcement mechanisms to enforce those polices…. That’s what the feds expect from us.”
Whaley went on to explain that Wesleyan treats marijuana possession and use in the same way as underage drinking. However, he mentioned that many students have complained that these two offenses should not be dealt with the same degree of severity, although he believes them to be the two biggest threats to the well-being of the student body, since Wesleyan has higher rates of usage than do other institutions. One student attendee even pointed out that Wesleyan’s rate of marijuana is 300 percent higher than the national average. On the other hand, Whaley explained, harder drugs are not nearly as prevalent at the University, despite what public perception might suggest.
Though some aim to reduce the general use of drugs on campus altogether, others advocate for harm reduction, citing the reality that there will always be people who wish to experiment with drugs. That being said, some emphasize the importance of taking precautionary safety measures when it comes to drugs.
Wesleyan’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) consists of individuals who believe that ending the drug war is the best way to protect students as much as possible from the potential consequences of experimentation. However, its representatives recognize the challenges that come with getting the administration to promote harm reduction measures.
“I think we’ve seen here that the administration is less interested than we’d like at promoting harm reduction,” said Michael Linden 15, a newer member of the organization. “What SSDP can do at the university level is try to talk to administrators and try to talk to students and emphasize that prohibition has been around for 100 years, and people don’t do drugs any less than they ever have. Given that reality, how can we be sure that we don’t have students who are hospitalized and whose lives are put in danger?”
The Wesleyan chapter of SSDP is also concerned about the illegality of drug testing kits in the state of Connecticut from the view of harm reduction, as well as the nebulous code of conduct at Wesleyan with respect to the legal consequences of drug possession and distribution.
“I’m particularly interested in clarifications to the judicial code, which I think right now are very vague about drug offenses,” Linden said. “The range for selling drugs is between 4 points, which is something less than even probation, and 10 points, which is permanent expulsion. That seems to me to be a very wide and undefined range, and I think something that is important for effective campus regulation of behavior is clear expectations of students and a clear understanding of the consequences, and so I think that’s something that SSDP can work on for sure.”
Winnie Yung ’15, another member of Wesleyan’s chapter of SSDP, also addressed the presence of administrative obstacles regarding a more progressive approach to drug policy at the University.
“When we spoke to Dean Whaley, he was very reluctant and very apprehensive about harm reduction policy, probably thinking that this will encourage people to do more drugs,” Yung said. “The school’s Good Samaritan policy is also something we’re concerned about because it puts alcohol and marijuana in the same category, and then all the other drugs in another category, and it seems like a sort of arbitrary division that isn’t going to solve anything in the long run, and I don’t think it’s a very effective way to educate students.”
The subsequent talks sponsored by the Allbritton Center further opened up dialogue about drugs on campus, specifically addressing the physiological impact of certain substances on the human body as well as the status of drug-related policy measures that are currently being taken both regionally and nationally to confront issues surrounding drug use at Wesleyan.
Though University policy itself has not seen any significant changes in the aftermath of the February overdoses, health and judicial concerns remain in the spotlight. Given the fact that Wesleyan is subject to both state statutes as well as federal regulation, substantial alterations in current procedures are unlikely to happen swiftly. However, public conversation has begun, which may eventually allow for compromises to be reached in which users and potential users alike are offered as much protection as possible from the negative consequences of drug use.