Truly dangerous habits?

A Campus Safety and Security officer walks into an entry and finds a group of first-years sitting in a circle playing Kings. Worst case scenario: There goes your beer down the drain, literally. In another scenario, Security responds to a fire alarm set off by burnt popcorn, takes the opportunity to go in your room and finds marijuana residue on your desk. Next thing you know, the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) is on the scene, and you are slapped with a $100 fine. Heaven help you if you had an eighth of mushrooms you were planning to take next weekend because that little bit of pot gives WPD the right to search your room.

In my opinion, alcohol abuse poses the greatest risk to student safety on campus, but it enjoys a sort of special protection from both criticism and punishment because of its widespread social acceptance. Both on a national scale and in the microcosm of the Williams community, there is a clear double standard regarding attitudes toward alcohol and toward other drugs, such as marijuana. This double standard is reflected in the enforcement of the laws over drugs. My issue, and a claim that many at Williams will agree with, is that alcohol abuse poses a greater health risk and causes greater damage to society than illicit drugs like marijuana, ecstasy or psilocybin mushrooms. Yet alcohol abuse, as reflected in the prevalence of underage binge drinking, does not incite disciplinary action by the school, while the mere act of possessing a small dose of acid requires the full mobilization of the Berkshire Drug Task Force and can result in felony drug charges. In other words, the social costs and health risks related to alcohol do not correspond to the College’s disciplinary procedures. If the administration were to enforce underage-drinking laws as strictly as they do laws for marijuana possession, there would be a problem.

At his lecture last week, Eddie Einbinder counseled that any drug, when taken conservatively and as it is meant to be done, will usually not be a problem to your health and safety. This is common sense that we all know. Too much of anything can kill you. Thus, everything in moderation. However, alcohol at Williams is not used conservatively nor how it was meant to be used. Instead, I would venture to say, a majority of alcohol consumption on campus takes the form of binge drinking. This is consistent with national statistics from 2009, which found that 41.7 percent of youth aged 18 to 25 had engaged in binge drinking in the previous 30 days (binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in two hours for men and four or more drinks in two hours for women). Obviously, these limits are incompatible with the overarching goal of many students’ weekend plans: getting trashed. But considering the casual links between alcohol and violence or alcohol and emergency room visits, I think it is time to start collectively re-evaluating how this drug is treated.

This might be a controversial statement to make in this day and age, but it needs to be made: The punishments surrounding substances like ecstasy, psylocibin and LSD cause far more damage than the drugs themselves. I put cannabis in a category of its own because it is clear to most people now (three-fourths of Americans support medical marijuana) that prohibition of marijuana is too costly, both in human and economic terms. The use of MDMA (ecstasy) in treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder has shown promise. Subjects who were given psilocybin in a laboratory setting reported feelings of well-being up to a year later that they subjected to the drug. LSD is one of the least addictive drugs – subjects report a decreased desire to do it after each use.

Let me be clear. I do not want Security to start issuing citations for underage possession or opening investigations into who provided the booze at a party. That is no fun for anyone. I think the College policy should be focused on harm reduction. This means the College should recognize the reality of student drug and alcohol use on campus and seek to prevent any negative effects that may arise. In the case of alcohol, this means a shift in the campus culture towards safer practices and moderation. I’m not a prude asking you to not enjoy yourself on a weekend, and it would be hypocritical to say that I haven’t abused alcohol in the past with disastrous results. All I’m saying is that when someone blacks out more than once in a month or has recurring DUIs, instead of reacting by saying, “D— dude, you went hard this weekend, props,” you might suggest that they take it easy and stop putting themselves in very real danger.

On the flip side, I believe that a harm reduction strategy targeted at “illegal drugs” should take the form of honest education, resources allowing for the safest use and a general decrease in the enforcement of state and national laws.

We all want Williams to act like the top-notch institute that it is. But brushing off the issue of binge drinking and focusing disciplinary actions on those who use marijuana or other less harmful drugs is not the way to do it. Williams should aim to be on the cutting edge of ensuring a safe campus culture in all its aspects.