Columbia Drug Bust is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

When five Columbia University students were arrested for selling drugs out of their dorms and fraternity houses last week, the public seemed unsurprised. “Drug use is everywhere,” shrugs a New York University student, “It’s practical, part of going to school.”  “It’s pretty normal,” confirms a Pace University senior.

These students are correct in their assertions that substance abuse is widespread on campuses: 49 percent (3.8 million) of full-time American college students binge drink and/or abuse prescription and illegal drugs, according to Columbia University’s own National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. 1.8 million of these students meet the diagnostic criteria for substance abuse and dependence. This is clearly not just New York’s problem; a drug bust at a high-profile Ivy League school simply brings this national issue into the public eye.  Again.

Prevalence, however, is no excuse for ambivalence; the fact that nearly half our nation’s college students are engaged in addictive and life-threatening conduct does not mean that we should accept this behavior as normal.

“Why the unwillingness to do something?” asks Tom McLellan, Ph.D., former Deputy Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “If this were some environmental issue that was responsible for a significant proportion of college dropouts, vandalism, emergency room visits and student deaths, we would demand a solution. Why aren’t we demanding a solution for drug and alcohol problems?”

Graham Spanier, Penn State President and former Chair of the Big Ten Conference, believes that a major aim of higher education is “developing citizenship and social responsibility in our students…no aspect of this challenge is greater for our young adults than the excessive consumption of alcohol and the behaviors that surround it.” Just ask any sober college kid. Students who choose not to use drugs or binge drink confront immense peer pressures and feel a social obligation to use—it’s no wonder that so many of them eventually give in to the predominant drug culture.

With a demand this high, it is indeed unsurprising that those five Columbia students turned to drug dealing for easy money. Now, they face jail time that will delay or halt their education, compromise their employability, and render them less likely to recover from any addictions they may already have.

Sending kids to jail will only make matters worse. Instead, we need to provide alternatives to incarceration – from community service to counseling – that are more effective and cheaper. A study by the RAND Corporation found that every dollar spent on substance abuse treatment saves seven dollars in law enforcement costs. In addition, Time Magazine makes an apt point: sending a kid to prison will cost taxpayers $55,670 per year—that’s more than the cost of Columbia’s tuition. Is this really how we want to spend our tax dollars?

The media needs to stop focusing on these five students and instead examine the root of the problem: the drug epidemic that is taking America’s college campuses by storm. Universities need trained assessment and treatment providers available on their campus, as well as increased school programming in substance abuse education and prevention. These initiatives would have a profound positive impact, and could save the lives of countless college students—from drug users who die from an overdose to drug dealers like Pace University student Max Moreno, who was recently the victim of a drug-related murder.

“These students were playing with fire,” says Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan. She’s right—and we as a nation cannot stand by and watch our best and brightest young people crash and burn because of alcohol and drugs.

Howard P. Meitiner
President & CEO, Phoenix House

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