Campus Hypocrisy: Marijuana Is Safer, But Students Are Pushed to More Dangerous Booze

Two weeks ago, we published an excerpt from the recently released Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? It was so well received, we asked the authors for a second excerpt, which is included below. If you have found one or both of these excerpts compelling, we encourage you to participate in The Great Marijuana Book Bomb taking place today (August 20). The authors have organized a one-day campaign to drive the book to the top of the rankings. If you want to see it reach #1, click on the book title above and make a purchase of your own.

Campuses are a microcosm of the broader society when it comes to alcohol and marijuana use. Although both substances are illegal for students under the age of twenty-one, the punishments for those who use them are far from equal. Most universities impose policies mandating that students who are busted using cannabis will face more severe sanctions than students caught drinking alcohol. We are aware of numerous students who have been removed from campus housing for possessing a small amount of marijuana in their dorm room. Yet these same students would have received a slap on the wrist -- most likely in the form of a warning or campus probation -- if alcohol had been present.

Take Purdue University in Indiana, for example. This school imposes a "zero tolerance" policy for students who are caught with marijuana in their dorms. This means that the possession of any amount of cannabis will result in immediate cancellation of their campus housing contract. By contrast, Purdue employs a "three strikes" policy for underage possession of alcohol. Bob Heitert, director of administration for university residence halls at Purdue, justifies the school's inconsistent policy this way: "Illegal drugs are against the law for everyone, while alcohol is against the law for a larger portion of students but not for everyone. Society seems to take a different approach to alcohol than they do to illegal drugs. We reflect that societal difference."

Universities like Purdue may be bound by a responsibility to punish behavior that is not consistent with the law. But they are not legally obligated to establish stringent penalties, such as enforcing zero-tolerance housing policies or barring students with minor pot violations from ever holding student office, as is the policy of the University of Maryland at College Park. More importantly, they are under no legal obligation to treat students who illegally possess marijuana on campus more severely than they sanction students who illegally possess alcohol. Yet most colleges do?and often for no reason other than a perceived need to reflect existing societal differences. And by maintaining these disparate punishments in the face of student opposition, university governments and their boards of trustees are making a conscious, if inadvertent, decision to steer students toward the use of alcohol.

And what are the ramifications of these kinds of campus policies? First, as we all know, the use of alcohol by college students is rampant. According to data from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, approximately 80 percent of college students drink alcohol. Figures for binge drinking are even more startling. For instance, more than 44 percent of students surveyed in 2001 said that they had engaged in binge drinking in the preceding two weeks, and more than 22 percent had done so at least three times in that time period. Predictably, these frequent binge drinkers?and those around them?often suffer as a result. As described by George Dowdall in College Drinking, "[F]requent binge drinkers were 7 to 10 times more likely than the nonbinge drinkers to get into trouble with the campus police, damage property or get injured, not use protection when having sex, or engage in unplanned sexual activity."

The social consequences of all this student drinking are even more alarming. At the most tragic level, alcohol abuse is a leading cause of fatalities on college campuses. In 2001, there were an estimated 1,700 alcohol-related unintentional-injury deaths among college students and others aged 18 to 24. But these deaths are just the tip of the alcohol-related-injury iceberg. Researchers estimate that every year approximately 600,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are unintentionally injured while under the influence of alcohol. Of course, those who drink are not the only ones adversely affected. Even more disturbing is the number of injuries to others that are caused by students under the influence of alcohol. Each year approximately 700,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by students who have been drinking, and close to 100,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. Yet these raw numbers only tell part of the story. The much broader impact of alcohol abuse on campus is evident when one looks at the percentage of violent acts that are booze-related. According to a 1994 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), 95 percent of all campus assaults are alcohol-related, and 90 percent of all reported campus rapes involve a victim or an assailant who has been drinking alcohol.

"Virtually every sexual assault is associated with alcohol abuse. Almost every assault of any kind is related to drinking." - University of Maryland President C.D. "Dan" Mote, August 2008

University officials are well aware of these startling statistics. As is evident by the quote above, campus leaders not only recognize that alcohol is a frequent cause of injuries and assaults, but many also believe that it is a factor in almost all campus assaults. Think about this point for a moment. These same officials are aware that students use marijuana on their campuses?most likely to a greater extent than they would like. Yet despite pot's popularity among the student body, you rarely if ever hear university officials or campus police publicly blaming assaults or rapes on marijuana abuse. In other words, the people responsible for maintaining safety on college campuses recognize that alcohol use frequently leads to widespread injuries and violent student behavior while marijuana use does not. You would think that leaders of institutions of higher learning would rationally and impartially examine this data and act accordingly. Think again.

Confronted with this nationwide college-drinking epidemic, university leaders have generally concluded that the best approach to this problem is to instruct students, including underage students, how to consume booze more responsibly. In short, universities are implicitly, and in some cases explicitly, endorsing alcohol as the only acceptable recreational substance of choice for students.

Here is a prime example. In the introduction of our book we described a prominent effort among university presidents to address the problem of alcohol abuse and related violence on campuses. The more than 130 members of the "Amethyst Initiative" have publicly called for a national debate on lowering the drinking age to eighteen years of age. Proponents of such a change in the law believe it will bring student drinking out into the open and will lead to more responsible behavior.

However one feels about the merits of this proposal, there is no arguing that it is based on the assumption that college students are going to drink alcohol one way or the other, and that the best outcome our society can hope for is some kind of moderation of this behavior. But we contend that this assessment is incomplete and pose an alternative question. That is: If both alcohol and marijuana are currently illegal for those under the age of twenty-one, why is it acceptable to encourage young college students to "drink responsibly," but not appropriate to suggest that they should "party responsibly" with a less harmful substance like marijuana instead?

Don't we care enough about the health and safety of our nation's college students to simply have this discussion?

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.