Students faced with marijuana charges

Five Williams students will face court charges for marijuana possession on Thursday. These summons are in part due to a change in the College’s protocol regarding incidents of marijuana possession, which took effect last July.

Previously, the College dealt with matters internally, but its new “see it, smell it, report it” policy calls for Campus Safety and Security to report all marijuana incidents directly to the Williamstown Police Department (WPD). The WPD has recently seen an increase in charges against individual students. “From March 1 to date, we have criminally charged eight people with marijuana possession. All of these appear to have been students,” said Kyle Johnson, WPD Chief.

“Eight charges in a six week period appears to be more than usual,” he added, noting that the weekend before spring break, the charges were “dispersed around campus.”

Jean Thorndike, director of Security suggested that the temporary increase in incidents could be due to room inspections that took place during spring break.

Describing the consequences of being charged for marijuana possession, Johnson said, “A person arrested is brought to the police station for booking procedures. They then go to Northern Berkshire District Court for an arraignment in front of the judge. There are numerous options at this point: plea, trial, etc.”

“We’ll see how it goes,” said a student who has recently been charged with marijuana possession. “In court, I’ve heard that we’ll probably get a fine or probation,” the student, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “I don’t think it will go on our record.”

Since July, Security has contacted WPD a total of 15 times, according to Jean Thorndike, director of Security. Each Security report to the WPD is recorded as one incident, which does not necessarily reflect the number of students caught with possession.

The College and the WPD jointly decided on the change in policy, partially due to the fact that Security cannot handle illegal substances, such as marijuana. “There were situations where we were handling marijuana, and the police felt that we had no authority to handle the controlled substance,” Thorndike said. “That’s why our response policy was put in place. Our own policy is all in compliance – we didn’t change our drug policy, we just changed our response.”

Measuring the effectiveness of this response is difficult, as the change in reporting policy coincided with a change in reporting periods. “The information for 2006 is based on the calendar year,” Thorndike said. “The new reporting policy began in July 2007 to the present so it’s a slightly different reporting time period.” Thorndike said she has not yet compiled the statistics for the 2007 calendar year.

A total of 15 incidents have occurred in both the calendar year and the new reporting period, Thorndike reported. Despite the three-month difference, she found comparing the numbers of each period worthwhile. “I thought it was interesting to note that a total of 15 incidents occurred in 2006 and we were also at 15 for the same time period of the new reporting policy,” she said.

Action by the College

Students caught in possession of marijuana still undergo the same process of treatment by the College. “As with all disciplinary action we take, we examine these cases on an individual basis,” said Dean Merrill. “If it happens more than once, we’ll definitely follow up with the student, or we may address the issue on a first offense if that offense is big enough.”

“The whole situation was handled well,” said one student who has faced marijuana possession charges recently of the College’s response. “I didn’t think it was unfair or anything.” The student had to meet with Dave Boyer, associate director of Security. “We told him the story of what happened,” the student said, mentioning that Boyer was “very cool, very nice.”

Students then complete four or more meetings of “Straight Dope,” the marijuana education program run by the Health Center, developed for students who have violated College policy or who volunteer to attend. Its goal is to educate students, help them evaluate their relationship with the drug and think about how much to cut down or quit.

“The marijuana education program has been available for the past 10 years, though it seems referrals for the program are up in the past two or three years or so,” said Laini Sporbert, substance abuse counselor at Health Services, who runs the program.

“The change in how Security responds to marijuana violations has not affected any Health Center policies,” said Sporbert. “There are no scheduled changes to the marijuana education program planned for the immediate future.”

“The classes were really cool, really laid-back,” said one student who recently went through program sessions and preferred to remain anonymous, “You talk about yourself.” Each session is individualized, informal and usually lasts about an hour.

“It’s understandable for the school,” the student said, referring to the College’s response to their charge. “If anything, [the process] could help me.” When the student was asked whether the WPD’s charges or the College’s responses have changed their use of marijuana, they noted that “It has affected others’ usage and caution.” The student added that it would not change personal habits. “It’s like being anywhere – at home, in the city – there are police everywhere,” the student said. “At school is no different.”

“We thought the reporting change would reduce the number of incidents [of marijuana possession on campus] however this doesn’t appear to be the case,” said Thorndike.