Up in smoke

By JOHN ZORABEDIAN  |  January 25, 2006

To some Brown students, the university’s disciplinary approach seems lax and reeks of class privilege. Senior Matthew J. Lawrence argued in the Brown Daily Herald last semester that his peers should refuse to smoke marijuana because, while non-student dealers are likely to face stiff sentences if arrested, student pot-smokers risk only a “slap on the wrist.” When campus police caught two of his sophomore-year roommates smoking marijuana, Lawrence says, they were not arrested. “Since then I’ve seen the same thing — caught with pot and nothing,” he says.

Of course, other Brown students are quite happy with the university’s policies — and not necessarily because they don’t have to constantly be looking over their shoulder while tugging on a beer or a joint.

Describing the approach as consistent with Brown’s guiding philosophy, senior Jeffrey Tiell says the university entrusts its students with freedom and responsibility. “I think the university takes a more reactive response to substance abuse than proactive, essentially behaving in a laissez-faire manner until they are forced into responding to an event such as the party Sex Power God,” Tiell says, referring to a November event that became controversial after becoming the subject of sensationalistic coverage on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor. “I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing . . . There is a fine line between student safety and personal liberty, and I think Brown does a decent job of walking that line.”

Shifting standards
PARTY-HEARTY: Although college years have long been a time of social freedom, growing awareness of binge drinking has led more schools to adopt a tougher line.Although the college experience has long been a time of experimentation and liberation, a golden period between the innocence of youth and the responsibility of adulthood, the negative consequences of substance use by some students — particularly binge drinking and date rape — have gained more attention since the early ’90s. Recognition of these problems, as well as the potential liability for universities (MIT, for example, offered a $6 million settlement to the parents of Scott Krueger, a freshman who died after overdosing on alcohol during a fraternity hazing in 1997), has resulted in a backlash against the stereotypical collegiate lifestyle of reckless abandon.

In no small part, this is due to the influential research of Dr. Henry Wechlser, the director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s College Alcohol Study. Since 1993, Wechsler’s comprehensive surveys of hundreds of colleges, of all sizes and from all regions across the country, have produced statistics on the prevalence of student binge drinking (defined as five or more consecutive drinks for men, or four or more for women), and the extent of student alcoholism and alcohol-related behavioral problems.

While frequent binge drinkers (those doing so three or more times in two weeks) constitute about 23 percent of all students, according to Wechsler’s research, they account for 73 percent of student drinking. (This finding could also be interpreted to suggest that most students take part in an active social life without causing serious problems.) Wechsler says frequently binging students are far more likely than their peers to struggle academically, to use illicit drugs, and to suffer from depression or alcoholism. He has also found that 1700 US college students die each year from alcohol or alcohol-related injuries; students who have been drinking are responsible annually for 700,000 assaults; and 97,000 students are raped or sexually assaulted each year by peers who are under the influence.

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