Students broach campus drug discussion

As the level of campus discussion of drug-related issues rises, from WSO debates to increased student interaction with police over incidents involving marijuana, a newly formed student group, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), is working to promote awareness and understanding of drug issues. The group, which meets once a week to discuss current developments in American drug policy and to plan events at the College, is an official chapter of the national SSDP organization, which also has international affiliates.

SSDP reflects several student perspectives on drug-related issues. Founded earlier this semester by Stevie Luther ’11, SSDP intends to “fill the gap in public discourse on campus about the connection between drugs, criminal punishment and public health,” Luther said. He said he was first inspired to start SSDP after attending a political economy panel on drug policy and its implications for society and the economy last spring.

“If we can get just a couple people to stop and question the rationale behind the current federal policy of drug prohibition, our club will have done its job,” Luther said.

Another founding member of SSDP, Jimi Morales ’10, further asserted SSDP’s potential to supplement the information that the community receives on drugs. “We have all sorts of safety posters and informational meetings regarding alcohol, but no discussion involving other drugs comes up,” Morales said. “What we promote as a campus culture needs to be reevaluated. SSDP gives students an outlet to learn more regarding how and why our current drug laws are in existence and how those laws have an effect on people.”

The College policy as stated in the handbook currently stands as follows: “The College prohibits the unlawful manufacture, sale, distribution, dispensing, possession, or use of illegal drugs, or the unauthorized use of prescription drugs . . . When violations are determined to have occurred, the College will impose disciplinary sanctions on students and employees, consistent with local, state, and federal law.” Unlike a charge such as underage drinking, a drug-related charge will immediately refer a student to the Williamstown Police Department (WPD), a policy put in place in September 2007.

Massachusetts voters decriminalized marijuana in amounts under one ounce in a vote on Nov. 4, 2008 that took effect Jan. 2, 2009 (“Weed laws to change by Jan.,” Record, Nov. 12, 2008). The summary punishment is a $100 fine and confiscation of the marijuana, as opposed to the serious criminal proceedings in place prior to the November election. Still, Jean Thorndike, director of Campus Safety and Security, said that the legally criminal nature of all drugs compels Security officers to involve the police.

“The Campus Safety and Security Department is not law enforcement. Therefore, we cannot handle, possess or dispose of any illegal substances,” Thorndike said. “If we find evidence of illegal substances, we call the police.”

Since the amended law took effect, there have been at least eleven confirmed drug-related incidences on campus, not a significant departure from previous numbers according to Thorndike. The range of incidences on record includes confiscation of drugs and of paraphernalia, the discovery of roaches and residue, active possession by students and a confirmed odor of marijuana.

SSDP members have already tabled at Paresky during lunch hours to distribute literature from the national organization and answer questions. SSDP has also publicly screened Grass, a 2000 film by Ron Mann that documents America’s war on drugs, specifically marijuana, in the 20th century. The drug war is another issue SSDP seeks to expose and bring under criticism. “Schools Not Prisons,” a tag-line of SSDP, affirms the goal of coming to a sensible social policy.

“As responsible citizens, SSDP members are utilizing . . . free speech to spread knowledge to our campus community about an issue that we perceive to be a serious economic, social and public health problem,” Luther said.

Morales also emphasized how SSDP is working off the energy on the national scene now to reexamine marijuana laws. “If you look at what is happening now in places like California and Colorado, cannabis for recreational use is on the brink of becoming legal,” Morales said. “Local student chapters of organizations like SSDP and National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) are at the forefront of getting ballot initiatives out there and mobilizing voters. I can imagine in the near future a Williams SSDP chapter organizing Berkshire County voters to pass the medical cannabis initiative, or something along those lines.”

Luther alluded as well to the conversation in California about policy reform and cited national progress on a grassroots level. “[SSDP] ties in to the national debate on drug reform as the ‘conventional’ policy regarding marijuana prohibition has begun to be refuted by voters on a state by state basis,” he said.

Public outreach is a key ongoing task for SSDP, and goals for this semester include a panel discussion and a screening of The Union: The Business Behind Getting High (2007), a documentary directed by Brett Harvey on the underground marijuana market and its implications. SSDP is also working to organize a concert and bring a Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) speaker to campus this fall.

Another division of students interested in College drug policy is those who have been disciplined for drug-related incidences. One student who chose to remain anonymous expressed dissatisfaction with the process, citing a lack of consistency in the disciplinary action. The student in question was punished for marijuana possession under one ounce. After speaking to others caught with smoking marijuana, possession on one’s person, and possession in the dorm, the student found that the disciplinary action he received – the $100 fine and the potential detriment to his future student privileges – seemed “arbitrary.”

“It seems that I have received the same discipline as someone actively smoking has received,” he said. “I think there should be a difference between the punishment meted out to someone who is smoking and violating smoking restrictions as well as violating possession.”

The student went on to say that he found the Straight Dope program the College referred him to educational, but still resented the lack of consistency between drug-related discipline and other transgressions, especially concerning underage alcohol consumption.

Various members of SSDP articulated frustration at the social stigma attached to drugs with a focus on issues with marijuana on campus. Veronica Rabelo ’11 felt that the gaping inequity of acceptance between alcohol and marijuana has contributed to an unhealthy campus culture. “Alcohol can be fatal – it has potential for overdose and leads to not just alcoholism but also other comorbidities like cancer, strokes, etc.,” Rabelo said. “Marijuana, on the other hand, once stripped of its carcinogenic potential, has no clear long-term medical consequences or potential for physical addiction.”

Rabelo continued to explain the differences she perceived between the two substances. “Drunk college students are much more susceptible to date rape, blackouts, sudden death and other serious, prevalent outcomes,” she said. “College students high on marijuana, however, are much more susceptible to overeating, playing video games instead of doing homework or stealing snacks from a neighbor.”

Comparing alcohol and marijuana in terms of their health risks and social niches is a task that goes beyond campus discussion, and Luther acknowledges that SSDP is just one avenue and one piece of that discourse. “SSDP is a truly grassroots effort,” he said. “We are ultimately trying to effect change on a national scale, but of course this effort begins with the process of increasing awareness in our local community.”