A look at illegal drug use on the Williams campus

Since marijuana and harder drugs became illegal several generations ago, the United States government has put massive amounts of funding and effort into enforcing the laws prohibiting their use. Especially in the last several years, these efforts have been largely successful. However, this trend brings the general use of drugs at Williams into question.

In his essay, “Brainwashing: Anti-drug ads are cool. The drug war is not,” author James R. Peterson explains that although the population has grown in size, the number of drug users has declined.

According to Peterson, in 1962, 4 million Americans had tried illegal drugs, in 1985, the number was 23.3 million, and in 1997, there were13.9 million illegal drug abusers were reported. Additionally, 5.7 million Americans used cocaine at least once in 1985, while only 1.5 million used the drug in 1997.

In addition to the increase in population size since drug use numbers were first taken, the availability and diversity of drugs has steadily increased. While illegal drugs were never accepted as a part of the mainstream American culture before the mid to late-1960s, the Partnership for a Drug Free America recommends that parents “Accept rebellion. At the heart of it, drugs, alcohol, wild hairstyles, trendy clothes, ear-splitting music and outrageous language are different ways of expressing teenage rebellion.” In spite of all this “acceptance” of the illegal drug culture, the drug war has begun to complete its objective of the eradication of illegal drug use in the U.S.

Drug use at Williams

Williams, however, does not always seem to follow this trend of decreased use. Though there is no “drug war” of the national level waged against the student population, there are punishments and counseling for students who suffer from the harmful effects of drugs. The general anti-drug message has remained visible though and has had its effect on students.

According to Head of College Security Jean Thorndike and the Williamstown Police Department, the number of actual drug arrests involving students has not fluctuated greatly. According to Thorndike, “we are not dealing with fewer cases than in the past year, but neither are we dealing with a significant increase of cases.”

The number of police cases involving Williams students and drug use has remained low over the last couple of years. There was one case in 1995, three in 1996, zero in 1997 and four in 1998.

These numbers are only the cases in which the Williamstown Police were involved, not the number of incidents of drug use reported to Williams College Security. Thorndike claims that Security has dealt with nine cases involving the use of marijuana since September of 1998.

Specific cases

In addition, five interviewed students, all preferring to remain nameless, explained the drug scene at Williams to be very active, and not seeming to have abated at all over the past several years.

The first student interviewed, a sophomore, explained how accessible marijuana is. “If I want some pot, I can make one phone call and pick it up immediately. I don’t even know the guy who I buy it from that well. . .but it’s still really easy.”

Another student, a freshman, claimed to have been surprised by how frequently he observes drug use. “I totally didn’t expect Williams to be a drug school at all. I guess in high school, I sort of saw Williams as a sort of ‘old boys school’ where sports were really important. Even when I visited here, I saw all these guys who I thought were super-athletes smoking. This fall, even the other new freshman who were really into sports started getting into drugs and stuff. Some people had never done any drugs before, and now they’re totally into it.”

He went on to explain that many classmates were encouraged to try drugs by upper-class teammates or friends. While most surprised by drug use by athletes, he made sure to mention that he sees “people from all sorts of social groups” abuse illegal drugs, including his Junior Advisors.

A senior told of similar experiences. When she was a freshman, she had also seen drug use within her entry. Though she has not used drugs at all at Williams, she claims that drug use is “just as visible as it was my freshman year [1995].” Although the students who are able to supply the drugs have obviously changed because of graduations, the “flow” of drugs through Williams has not changed noticeably.

It is clear that many factors aid the drug culture here at Williams. According to Thorndike and students from other schools, the drug use at Williams is not necessarily more or less prominent than at other comparable colleges. “It all seems pretty even,” she explained of nation-wide campus drug use. “On the most part, marijuana seems to be the drug of choice.”

Students echoed this sentiment, explaining that most drug users of whom they were aware found marijuana more accessible, generally less expensive and more familiar.

Still, it is clear that other illegal drugs besides marijuana are being used on campus.

The first student first encountered opium use in a neighboring entry his first year. Several other students had “bought it in Boston or New York City,” and “just wanted to see what it was like.” The group only used the drug once, though in front of six or so onlookers. After the “test,” the remaining opium was sold to an upperclassman.

Cocaine use, however, has remained far more inconspicuous. One student who had tried the drug had used it once before coming to Williams, and then once while here. He explained that it was much more difficult to purchase cocaine on campus, and when it was available, was far more expensive than its normal “street price.” Still, “if someone wants cocaine, and they’re willing to spend some money, they can get it.” This level of availability – if one wants the drug badly enough, one can get the drug – is quite similar to availability outside of Williams.

Factors in drug use

One of the first complaints students have about Williams is its isolation. Being literally situated in the middle of a mountain range, the college is over two hours from Boston and New York City; the closest major city is Albany, at forty minutes away.

Though many find this relative isolation to be comforting in terms of a focus on an academic atmosphere, most find themselves frequently missing the social environment of a large city. Following this, many students find themselves bored with the traditional Williams social scene of row house parties and smaller drinking groups. Thus, they may find themselves experimenting with illegal drugs because, as one student explained, “it’s something to do.”

Though Thorndike is not “totally convinced that Williams is in an ‘isolated’ environment,” as “communication and transportation are readily available. . .[and] major cities are only 1-4 hours in any direction,” she agrees that “if people living in a ‘rural’ environment felt alienated by it, they might turn to alcohol and other drugs.”

Williams often touts its Junior Advisor system, in which two juniors live with an “entry” of freshman, acting as informal academic and social advisors, and very often becoming very close friends. This is in contrast to the Residential Advisor system of other colleges, such as Princeton University and the University of Vermont. At these schools and others, “R.A.”s are students– sometimes even adult community members–paid by the school to monitor the activities of underclassmen. If underclassmen are caught breaking alcohol, drug and even curfew rules by the R.A., they may be sent to the administration for punishment or fined for their violations.

Obviously, within this system a tension arises between the R.A. and their underclassmen, very unlike Williams’ own Junior Advisor system. However, this freedom may not help to discourage drug use. Many freshmen may feel free to try drugs without the worry of being caught and punished, unlike schools with an R.A. system. In fact, one senior interviewed had smoked marijuana with his J.A.

Williams College does wage its own form of a “drug war.” According to Thorndike, “the College offers educational programs through the heath educators at the Health Center. The College offers professional counseling services and peer support groups. The policy against drug use is stated in the Student Handbook.

The Security Department deals directly with students who commit minor infractions and will make referrals to Health Education or to the Dean’s Office. The Security Department will cooperate with local law enforcement authorities if requested to do so during drug investigations.”

According to student reports and arrest numbers, it seems that the College’s efforts are simply preventing the drug culture from increasing its current size. Thorndike admits that “If people don’t intend to change then they won’t,” though she remains confident in the College’s ability to help those who seek out help. Those who refuse to follow the College’s guidelines against drug use should be “ready to accept the consequences for their actions.”