Collegiate Policies on Drugs Other than Alcohol

Is it important that policies in higher ed that address "alcohol" and "other drugs" like marijuana be consistent and equitable?  Although controversial in some ways, this is essentially an issue related to equity, consistent enforcement of policies, and—perhaps most of all—money.

A bit of history: A point I have advocated for 40+ years is that alcohol is indeed a drug and should be treated as such.  The problem is that this is a position, however, that the alcohol industry has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in successfully discouraging—watch any super bowl beer advertisement.  Because alcohol “is legal” (for those 21+) it has been relegated to a different position in the panoply of drugs than most others and this is no better exemplified than by its absence (along with nicotine and caffeine, which make up the “unholy trinity” of most abused drugs that constitute the most costly in terms of untoward consequences—health costs, domestic violence, litigation, etc.) from the federal government’s schedule of drugs – see

With all the models that explain drug use and addiction, public policy in this country—and this trickles down to the state, local and even campus policy makers—continues to be driven by the Moral Model of addiction postulated since time immemorial.  Interestingly, there are two versions of this model, the “dry” moral model and the “wet” (this goes back to the later 19th and early 20th centuries and prohibition).  The “dry” moral model suggests that the drug itself is evil/bad and therefore those who use it are, by association, “bad” as well and should be punished for their transgression of use.  This is the model that prevails to this day as regard “real drugs,” that is to say, the illicit substances.  The “wet” moral model is the model that suggests the drug is not in and of itself bad, but when not used correctly—this by the way is a social construction, but I will refer to this in a moment—problems result.  This model advocates that substance use disorders are the result of weak willed individuals whose moral fiber is lacking.  In essence the substance is ok, but those who cannot manage it are not.  These unfortunates should be pitied and, marginally, better tolerated than those who use illicit substances, but they remain social if not moral outcasts.  This model is still well ensconced in our society as regards alcohol.

A second factor tends to affects public policy and treat alcohol-related violations/behavior differently from “real drug” use; litigation and public opinion.  Higher education, if nothing else, is a business.  As such, consideration of the bottom line is always a factor in decisions regarding policy and procedures and this is nowhere better seen than as regards drug use.  As regards the issue of drugs, that is “real drugs,” whether it is federal student loan policies that penalize applicants with drug arrests, federal guidelines regards receipt and administration of grants, pressure from parents and alumni, or simply the personal attitudes, values, and beliefs of benefactors who decide where and to whom to bequeath huge donations, the pressure is on senior administrators to take a hard line on drugs, to “play to the audience” if you will.

My comments so far shed just a bit of light on why things are the way they are…there is much more history here, but such is not necessary to make my point.  What is of more pressing concern is “what can be done” in the face of this history to affect public policy on campus and do so in such a way as to (1) not leave a trail of damaged student reputations that can jeopardize future opportunities, licenses, or careers in its wake and/or (2) appear to be pandering to “druggies” or those who “advocate for the complete legalization of all drugs.” NOTE: Decriminalization is one way that many municipalities have taken to extricate themselves from this issue.  In the City of Philadelphia, the DA has essentially said that marijuana changes involving less than 30 grams of weed will be treated as a summary offense with a $300 fine; no criminal record.  Although do to reduce the burden on the courts rather than for more altruistic reasons, “6 of one, a half dozen of the other.”

First, I would recommend NOT lecturing on what addiction is or how it should be treated.  To begin with, this is not the issue as most students are not addicted or even “diagnosable” as having a substance use disorder—the vast majority of cases involving alcohol or marijuana cases on a college campus have less to do with addiction than they have to do with poor judgment or a socially constructed understanding of alcohol/other drugs as substances or their use as a behavior—see my 3-part monograph on this topic entitled, When they drink, available at  Second, senior administrators are not going to read a long treatise attached to a memo advocating more equitable public policy regarding drug use.

Second, the bottom line is a factor affecting the formation of public policy in higher ed.  Consequently, use the bottom line as a factor in advocating for more equitable policies that are less draconian and more proactive.  Case in point: If students found holding “X” amount of marijuana suspended for 2 terms are not paying tuition this represents a loss of roughly $25K to the institution…not to mention that I believe there are data that show a significant portion of these students do not return to the school that suspended them.

Third, argue that punishment has never been an effective deterrent to perceived/actual errant behavior whereas education is.  Just as there are effective strategies to engage high-risk and dangerous collegiate drinking in such a way as to invite drinker consideration of change (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students, AKA BASICS), so can these approaches be applied to other drug use, such as marijuana.  NOTE: There is a difference between the student found holding several grams of weed and a half kilo.

Fourth, leave existing policies in place but present students found in violation of said policy with a choice as regards the consequences that result from that violation.  For example, students found with less than “X” marijuana will automatically get “X,” “Y,” and “Z” sanctions, but instead of a 2 term suspension from the institution they get a choice between that 2-term suspension or the opportunity to participate in a specially designed psychoeducational program steeped in evidence-based approaches to changing student behavior.  NOTE: First question you get when raising this issue with senior administrators is, “How are we going to pay for this?!?” ANSWER: With the $25K (or some portion of it) you would have lost by suspending the student.

Obviously, there is far more to this discussion that what I have written here, but suffice it to say that this sets out a couple arguable points.

In closing, keep in mind a couple “cultural” issues that have a HUGE impact on this discussion and debate:

1. Academics and Student Affairs professionals are as different from each other culturally as are Americans and Russians.  We may both be predominantly Caucasians, but our world views are very different.

2. Higher education is NOT just about education at the upper levels of administration; it is about business too…perhaps predominantly.  Yes, everyone talks about education and we are steeped in the traditions of such, but remember that higher ed is first and foremost a business.  Therefore this discussion needs to be conducted in the language of business.

3. Perception is everything.  21st century America is a myopic culture.  We do not see the big picture; we are all about quick fixes and the “do-not-upset-my-standard-of-living” perspectives…look at global warming, social security, federal deficit, etc.  Parents, alums, benefactors are emotional creatures, not rational ones.  They “see” a reasoned response to “drug use” and they “think” the institution is “soft on drugs.”  

The outcome of this debate is NOT going to swing on a hinge of logic; it will pivot on one of reason as vetted by those in the positions of power.  Best to educate those in that position with the logic and reason translated into the language they speak.

What do you think?
Dr. Robert


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