Last week, I was shocked to learn of a massive college drug bust in my home state of Alabama. Authorities arrested a whopping 61 University of Alabama students last Tuesday after a two-month investigation, many for infractions as minor as marijuana possession. These young adults now face the possibility of expulsion.
The actions of the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force struck me as extreme—and I can’t imagine that they will serve any purpose beyond grandstanding. The university’s newly appointed President Judy L. Bonner defended the bust, stating that the school is “dedicated to doing as much as [they] can to eradicate drug use.” I don’t deny that marijuana and other drugs are harmful for young people—and I do not condone breaking the law. But arresting and expelling students is no way to curb substance abuse on campus. In fact, it is counterproductive.
Students who use marijuana and other drugs recreationally aren’t likely to stop because the administration drew a line in the sand. And students who actually have problems will be driven further into hiding. Furthermore, given the link between college enrollment and crime reduction, expelling these kids and limiting their chances for success may have a negative impact on their communities.
Rather than spending vast resources on a raid, the city of Tuscaloosa should have invested in prevention and treatment. Instead of arresting students, a wiser measure would have been to identify drug users on campus and require them to take a substance abuse assessment. Students diagnosed as substance abusers could then receive referrals to outpatient counseling or in more serious cases, residential treatment centers. I doubt that many of the students charged on Tuesday have serious drug problems, but some of them might—and they should be treated as young people who need help, not as criminals.
Last Tuesday’s bust also ignores what is typically the most damaging substance on campuses across the country: alcohol. 41 percent of college students binge drink, a figure that has remained relatively steady over the past three decades. And we know that many campus tragedies are a result of heaving drinking. The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates 1,825 alcohol-related deaths, 599,000 alcohol-related injuries, and 97,000 alcohol-related sexual assaults among college students annually. So, why would authorities target marijuana use while giving lip service to the very serious issue of underage drinking? Many colleges, in collaboration with law enforcement, have taken steps to combat binge drinking, from hosting alcohol-free events to sober housing—and UA should do the same.
UA’s administration should be commended for its October decision to end all pledging activities amid hazing allegations at some fraternities. But defending the raid last Tuesday was a major misstep. It will likely do nothing to protect student safety or to promote healthy behavior. When it comes to reducing substance abuse, UA and other schools must cast a wide net, addressing everything from excessive drinking at parties, to steroid use on sports teams, to ‘study drugs’ in the dorms.
Most importantly, universities must recognize that punitive measures alone will have a limited effect at best. Only by educating students about the dangers of substance abuse—and providing help for those who need it—can we hope to change campus culture.
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