Can We Be Buds?

More than 130 college presidents called for rethinking the drinking age to curb alcohol abuse. Marijuana activists say reducing penalties for pot could have the same effect.

April 9, 2009

College leaders have undertaken countless campaigns to reduce binge drinking on their campuses, but a developing grassroots movement calls for an herbal remedy.

SAFER, a nonprofit organization that supports the reform of marijuana laws, is calling on college presidents to join its cause, arguing that students would be safer taking bong hits than tequila shots. The group is specifically seeking the endorsement of presidents who signed the Amethyst Initiative, which stated that the current legal drinking age of 21 might be contributing to drinking deaths and should be re-examined.

SAFER (Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation) has dubbed its plea to presidents the “Emerald Imitative.” Mason Tvert, executive director of the Denver-based organization, argues that legal restrictions and university disciplinary policies are steering students away from marijuana and toward alcohol, which is arguably a more harmful -- albeit legal -- drug. If university presidents reduced on-campus penalties for marijuana use, and took up the broader cause of legal reform for marijuana, they might see reductions in drinking-related deaths and violence, according to Tvert.

“The Amethyst Initiative is college presidents calling on Congress to change law -- to change the drinking age -- because they want to reduce drinking on college campuses,” he said. “This is no different.”

Tvert concedes there’s no evidence that making marijuana more available to college students would reduce binge drinking, but he notes that it’s a “theory” that’s as worthy of exploration as lowering the drinking age.

The Amethyst Initiative was drafted by John M. McCardell Jr., president emeritus of Middlebury College and founder of an alcohol reform group called Choose Responsibly. Mike Giuliani, executive director of Choose Responsibly, said Wednesday that he was unfamiliar with the Emerald Imitative.

“There are a lot of initiatives out there where people are trying to change things,” he said. “But we’re focusing on what we see to be a serious health crisis, and that’s binge drinking.”

Inside Higher Ed contacted several colleges where presidents had signed the Amethyst Initiative, and none had heard of the Emerald Initiative or chose to comment on the concept.

SAFER is still in the process of distributing letters to the Amethyst signatories, Tvert said. The letters ask presidents to endorse a “dispassionate debate” about providing students with an “alternative to alcohol,” while also considering legal and regulatory reforms for marijuana use.

“It is time to explore the benefits of encouraging students to ‘party responsibly’ rather than 'drink responsibly,’ “ the letter states.

SAFER is also seeking the support of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who is President Obama’s nominee for secretary of health and human services. A student at the University of Kansas, who had previously been removed from a dorm for alcohol infractions, died just last month after reportedly engaging in binge drinking in Sebelius’ home state. The student, Jay Wren, was 19.

Activism at Purdue

The Emerald Initiative is still in its formative stage, but students on a number of college campuses have already petitioned to erase the disciplinary disparity between marijuana- and alcohol-related conduct violations. At Purdue University, for instance, students approved a resolution last week that calls for equal disciplinary treatment of students caught with alcohol or marijuana in residence halls.

Purdue’s dorms have a “zero tolerance” policy for all illegal drugs, including marijuana. The same is not true, however, for alcohol violations. In 2007-8, Purdue’s dorms handled 691 alcohol-related incidents, just 18 of which resulted in loss of housing, according to university officials. In contrast, 51 of the 62 students involved in drug-related incidents were booted from their dorms over the course of the same year. The data provided by Purdue do not specify which drugs were involved in the incidents, but marijuana is among the more prevalent drugs on college campuses.

“We don’t think [students] should lose their housing for something we consider less harmful than alcohol,” said Sara Wislocki, president of Purdue’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Loss of housing comes with a potentially significant financial penalty. If a contract is terminated due to misconduct at Purdue, the student still has to pay rent for the rest of the semester in addition to a $300 cancellation fee.

In the wake of the student resolution, Purdue has made no changes to its policies.

“The university certainly allowed but did not endorse the referendum, and is not bound by the results of it,” said Jeanne Norberg, a university spokeswoman.

Norberg added that the university does not endorse illegal activity of any kind.

“The bottom line is that it’s not legal. Drinking underage is not legal, and any use of illegal drugs is illegal,” she said. “We are a state institution; we uphold the state law.”

But with the disparities of on-campus punishment, the university is going beyond upholding the law and making a judgment about whether marijuana use is worse than underage drinking or drinking to excess, Tvert said. In so doing, universities are giving a signal to students that they’re less likely to be punished for using alcohol -- a drug that has a history of causing greater problems on college campuses than marijuana, he said.

“College students base their choices not on the harm of the substance but on the harm of the penalties,” he said.

Even Tvert concedes, however, that marijuana is not completely benign. Men who use marijuana are at increased risk of testicular cancer, according to a recent study conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Donald Tashkin, a University of California at Los Angeles researcher and marijuana expert, found in a large-scale study two years ago that marijuana did not pose a lung cancer risk. Even so, Tashkin said he still believes the drug to be potentially harmful. There's also little question that marijuana affects concentration, although for those who choose to smoke it that's often the point.

Several Campuses Pass Referendums

SAFER has counseled a number of college students about pressing for changes in university policies related to marijuana. Referendums inspired by the group have been passed at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado State University, Ohio State University, Florida State University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Maryland, the University of Washington, and the University of Central Florida, according to SAFER.

Brendon Rivard, a senior at Central Florida who helped push a SAFER-style referendum on campus, is now trying to get the university to adopt a policy of equal disciplinary action for marijuana and alcohol-related violations. A student committee has already rejected moving the proposal forward once, but Rivard plans to re-present the proposal to them again in the next two weeks. If passed, the proposal would still require administrators’ approval.

“It’s not that we’re encouraging anyone to use any substance,” Rivard said. “In an ideal world everyone is drug free. … [But] obviously the health risks are substantially lighter for marijuana than they are with alcohol.”

By pressing for marijuana law reforms, students become public supporters of what is -- at least for now -- an illegal drug. Wislocki, a junior at Purdue pursuing a career in architecture, says she weighed the future implications of her activism and concluded that the worthiness of the cause outweighed any risks.

“I think it’s [demonstrating] good leadership skills,” she said. “If I can organize a bunch of stoners, what else can I do?”


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