Drug Policy? What Are You, High?

Last week the University Health Services (UHS) Health Fair came to town, complete with such goodies as free massages and tiny boxes of Sunmaid raisins. Students left loaded up with pens, pamphlets, and tips for “wellness.”

One of the stalls, however, was not organized by UHS but by the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Services (AODS). Its leaflets contained such informational gems as, “You still think marijuana isn’t bad for you? What are you, high?” The message was clear: Don’t do drugs, man.

Less clear are the signals sent by the College. The treatment of drug violations on campus varies from waving away the issue like so much pot smoke to public prosecutions and suspensions. This erratic enforcement of drug laws makes the College’s policy maddeningly unclear and unfairly singles out unlucky individuals for massively disproportionate punishment.

Officially, the College handbook states that a “pattern of behavior” will lead to serious consequences; unofficially, John L. Ellison, the assistant dean and secretary of the Administrative Board, said that students will rarely be disciplined solely for minor drugs violations. Yet last January the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) conducted a three-week investigation in order to catch two students allegedly smoking and dealing pot in DeWolfe (the charges were dismissed conditional on good behavior in May), and a month later HUPD bypassed College disciplinary procedure to prosecute two Quincy students for possession of LSD.

One reason for this discrepancy is that the three bodies governing drug policy at the College seem to have remarkably little coordination. Even when directly asked what their priority is, they can’t give a consistent answer. The AODS claims to prioritize “health and safety,” the Administrative Board “education,” and HUPD “to hold students accountable for their behavior.” No wonder the College’s actions seem somewhat inconsistent—it’s suffering from multiple-personality disorder.

Ostensibly it might seem like a good idea to give different bodies different areas of jurisdiction, but that’s not how the system (if one can call it that) works. Instead, the result is an unpredictable hodgepodge of punishments, with luck as the determining factor. If you’re unfortunate enough to come across HUPD in the wake of some bad publicity, expect a lengthy court process before the case’s possible dismissal. But if you’re caught by a relaxed tutor, expect a reprimand from the Ad Board, some drug counseling, and a slap on the wrist.

Of course, most of the time the College is admirably lenient in response to drugs violations. But leniency “most of the time” is not good enough for those few students who, in the words of Ryan M. Travia, director of Alcohol and Other Drug Services, happen to be caught “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Flexibility is good, but this ad hoc decision making fails to guarantee students even vaguely similar treatment for similar crimes.

Of course, hard-liners would say that the problem is leniency, not inconsistency: Harvard must pursue full legal punishment for drug offences because “it’s the law!” But why should the College put itself front line in the Government’s disastrous “war on drugs?” The concept of zero tolerance is both unfair and ineffective: It does little to dissuade drug use, and potentially carries hugely disproportionate penalties—prison and a permanent criminal record—for personal drug use. After all, the campus’ few potheads and even fewer hard drug users rarely cause great harm to themselves and even more rarely to others. Furthermore, Harvard does not need to turn to state and federal punishments because it has its own serious disciplinary options.

So, if the College accepts that zero tolerance is wrong, the only fair, safe, and sensible approach would be for all three bodies to more formally endorse the College’s general policy of leniency. This need not mean a public declaration of intent to disregard federal laws—that would clearly be stupid—but rather internal communication that ensures consistency. As counselors like to tell us, “A problem shared is a problem halved” (or in this case, trisected): The College needs to arrange a good, long talk between its three drugs-related bodies. It should be possible, after all, to apply more consistently the sensible attitudes displayed by individuals in these bodies.

Overall, College officials seem to agree on drug policy, which is why we don’t often hear about incidents such as the DeWolfe and Quincy arrests last year. In both of these cases, however, HUPD proved itself to be the loose cannon, needlessly pursuing legal action even when it benefited no one. HUPD’s rules stipulate that such decisions are left up to the officers’ discretion—or, in other words, to the student’s luck—but the College can create guidelines to limit that discretion. After all, there is no reason that HUPD’s regular communication with the College shouldn’t include a firm discussion on how to make drugs policy consistent across the board.

Of course this issue only affects the relatively small number of illegal drug-users at Harvard (discounting underage alcohol use). But for those few students, it can mean the difference between a stressful week, forced withdrawal for a year, and a life-ruining drugs conviction. The College needs to realize that “Drugs are bad, man” is not enough, and that only a consistent enforcement policy can be a fair one.



Juliet S. Samuel ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House.