Snow College is a two-year state college located in the heart of Utah. About 80 percent of its 4,000 students are members of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints. As part of their Mormon faith, many eschew the use of drugs, alcohol and even caffeine.
But these religious roots haven’t kept the campus free from drugs, and health experts caution that administrators at religious campuses can’t assume that their students are immune from drug and alcohol abuse.
On Tuesday, the sleepy, largely conservative campus got a shock when eight men, three current students and five former students -- who had been kicked out of the institution for a variety of reasons, including behavioral problems and substance abuse issues -- were busted in a drug sting, after an eight-month police investigation. Two of the current students, who also happen to be on the football team, were charged with misdemeanors for marijuana possession, according to police reports. The other six were charged with felonies for dealing prescription drugs, including Oxycontin, a narcotic commonly used as a painkiller.
“One of the reasons students come to Snow is because they know it’s a safe place,” says Rick Pike, a college spokesman who teaches a course at the institution. “This situation isn’t common, which is why it’s really big news around here.
“Even a little bit is too much,” he adds. “We need to have that ideal, but I’d be in denial to say we are 100 percent drug-free.”
In the aftermath of the arrests, many have said that the Mormon roots of Utah’s population have historically helped the state have a below-average rate of substance abuse among the college-going population.
“I live in Utah County, and our incidence and prevalence rates for substance abuse are half the state average,” says Richard J Nance, director of the Utah County Division of Substance Abuse. “The main reason why is that over 90 percent of the population identify themselves as Mormon, and there are strict guidelines in the 'Word of Wisdom' of the church against alcohol and drug abuse. Snow College is in a rural part of the state that is also highly [Mormon].”
According to Susan Whiting, a health administrator at Snow, nearly 90 percent of students reported in a 2005 survey that they had not used drugs or alcohol over the prior 30 day period. And about 17 percent reported being involved in drug prevention efforts, including student clubs that promote health and well-being. Police officials say that some students themselves initially provided the tip that a drug ring was operating on and around the Snow campus.
“We’re a very clean campus,” says Whiting. “And our police officers did a very good job at keeping us that way.”
But even with the watchful eye of the police, health experts say that administrators at Snow can’t afford to rest on their laurels. “I think it is easy to comfortably say that no part of the country is less likely to experience drug abuse among college students, though the drugs of choice may vary by region and/or other factors such as socioeconomics of the students,” says P. Davis Smith, medical director of the Davison House Health Center at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut.
Smith says that some institutions are doing better at recognizing substance abuse and especially at addressing prescription drug misuse, both in the patterns by which campus health officials prescribe drugs and in their interactions with individual students and health education outreach efforts.
“Young adults, some of whom are in college, are especially likely to be users of drugs. Some will get involved in selling or manufacturing them, and some of them will get caught and suffer criminal consequences,” says Smith. “We, as a society, have a long way to go in terms of addressing the factors that motivate us to turn to substances to provide solace, recreation, escape, etc.
“Actually treating substance abuse is very difficult, and most addicted students are likely better off leaving college to get treatment,” adds Smith.
At Snow, that has been a tried-and-true philosophy. If students are found to use alcohol or drugs illegally, they are given the opportunity to participate in an intensive 30-day rehabilitation program. But if they have been charged with felonies or refuse to participate, they are asked to leave the institution, with the opportunity to return after one year.
“Do I want to believe that our students abuse drugs less than average?” asks Pike. “I do want to believe that. But we also know that college students are at an age when they want to experiment. I’m not denying that we don’t face these issues.”