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reed magazine logoJune 2010

Fatal Overdose Focuses Attention on Drug Use at Reed continued

While the policy clearly sets forth the college’s overall philosophy, it is vague in terms of application. Over the years, students, faculty, deans, and community safety officers have interpreted it in various ways. In addition, the policy makes no distinction among different kinds of illegal drugs, implying identical consequences for, say, sharing a puff of marijuana and distributing a lethal quantity of heroin.

In 2007, Reed embarked on an effort to overhaul its approach. Led by professors Arthur Glasfeld [chemistry], Kris Anderson [psychology], Libby Drumm [Spanish], Wally Englert [classics], Maureen Harkin [English], and Peter Steinberger [political science], a task force reviewed scientific research and investigated current practices among peer institutions.

“We looked at the best science we could get our hands on,” says Dean of Students Mike Brody. “What we found was that heavy-handed enforcement—in isolation—doesn’t work. But we also found that prevention and education don’t work without enforcement.”

After extensive discussion and debate, the college finally adopted the new implementation plan in May 2009. Officially titled the “Health and Wellness Plan Relating to Alcohol and Other Drug Use at Reed College,” it sets out a three-pronged approach: prevention and education, therapeutic intervention, and enforcement.

A Three-Pronged Approach

Current research suggests that the promotion of healthy lifestyles is a key factor in reducing the risk of AOD use by encouraging more wholesome activities such as exercise, sports, drama, adventure trips, volunteerism, and so on. Reed already places a much stronger emphasis on extracurricular activities than in years past, with offerings through the sports center, the Gray Fund, the student activities office, and SEEDS.

“Our approach to prevention is based on the assumption that students are more likely to make healthy decisions if we provide them, in a non-judgmental way, with scientifically based information about the potential physiological, social, and academic consequences of misusing and abusing alcohol and other drugs,” says Brody. “We discuss these issues in the context of the honor principle, and the fact that students’ decisions about their individual behavior invariably have consequences for friends, family, and for Reed as a whole.”

Because psychological health is so strongly tied to physical well being, Reed has hired a nutrition and wellness counselor to provide education and support for students coping with the stresses of college life.

Reed maintains several dormitories that are explicitly substance-free (“sub-free” in campus lingo) for students who prefer to live in an environment free of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. The college also presents sessions at Orientation explaining the effects of AOD on brain chemistry and overall health. In addition, the college is preparing to train peer educators and advocates, in accordance with research that suggests peers are highly effective in influencing behavior.

Finally, self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous hold regular meetings on campus and throughout the Portland area.

Unfortunately, despite these efforts, some students continue to misuse and abuse AOD. Reed’s health & counseling center offers robust services to students who come forward to identify themselves as being at risk for problematic AOD use. In addition, if a student demonstrates problems relating to AOD, counselors can institute appropriate intervention, ranging in intensity depending on the degree of risk. For example, counselors may refer a student to drug education classes, specialized treatment off-campus, or arrange for an immediate medical leave of absence.

“We are dedicated to removing any barriers that might otherwise dissuade students from availing themselves of therapeutic resources,” says Brody. “Our counseling services are completely confidential, and our overall goal is to serve the academic mission of the college and provide for the safety and wellbeing of the individual student and the entire Reed community.”

A Tougher Stance

The new plan takes special aim at hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, whose use “poses health risks to users that are inherently unpredictable and potentially catastrophic.”

Possession of these drugs in any amount constitutes a serious violation and is grounds for immediate disciplinary proceedings. Possession of “distribution quantities” of such drugs is, of course, a felony: students engaging in such behavior face arrest and prosecution.

Since the new plan was adopted, college officials have referred several drug-related incidents to civil authorities such as the Portland police or, in one case, the FBI.

The recent tragedies have put Reed squarely in the media spotlight and drawn the attention of local law enforcement officials, who say that sophisticated drug cartels are increasingly focusing on college students. “Today’s drug dealer is targeting middle class and wealthier kids,” wrote Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk and US Attorney Dwight Holton in an open letter to Reed students. “It’s an unexploited market with more cash and less guns, and it avoids competition with bigger Mexican drug cartels, who have traditionally targeted people living in poor communities. To be perfectly clear: the new market which drug dealers are targeting is you.”

The science—and the politics—of drug prevention will doubtless continue to evolve. In the meantime, it remains, in the words of Dean Brody, “an issue that demands persistence and vigilance and allows no respite.”

Further Readings

reed magazine logoJune 2010