Preventing the Rise of Pothead U.

With the election season thankfully in our rear-view mirror, we can take stock of what the marijuana legalization initiatives (in both Washington and Colorado) mean. It should come as no surprise that college students have been rallying to end the prohibition of marijuana. I, for one, have often seen students pushing their decriminalization agenda on campus. What always struck me as I walked past these primarily white, middle-class crusaders is that marijuana is already effectively decriminalized on college campuses, as well as in suburbs and middle-class communities.

Decriminalization is a daily reality and has always been the applied law of the land in these environments. Sure, colleges and universities may claim to comply with federal drug laws, which, theoretically, should prevent the rise of Pothead U. Still, I can’t imagine the DEA swooping down anytime soon. A student conduct hearing and threat of drug education is not criminal enforcement.

Take a look at the numbers. Studies typically show that close to 50 percent of college students have used marijuana during the course of their young lives. According to a 2007 study, the number of students using marijuana daily more than doubled between 1993 and 2005. Furthermore, research has consistently shown that white students (and Latino students) use illegal drugs more frequently than African-American or Asian college students. Those trends also reflect drug-use patterns among young people not enrolled in college. It is not surprising that most of agitation for legalization of marijuana has been overwhelmingly white.

Of course, even the federal decriminalization of marijuana won’t eradicate all of the criminal misconduct among today’s college students. In recent years, drug use has also worsened with the proliferation of “performance-enhancing drugs” like Adderall. During the early part of the 21st century, sales increased by 3,100 percent; in recent surveys, anywhere from 5 percent to 35 percent of students admitted to popping these “study drugs.” Despite the fact that it violates federal drug laws, students regularly secure Adderall with little fear of punishment.

There is a consistent media narrative that downplays Adderall and other prescription-drug abuse. Imagining the abuse of these drugs as “steroids for school,” the media often depicts these crimes as an acceptable strategy in the face of pressure, as a reasonable choice in certain circumstances. In doing so, the media may have effectively decriminalized these sorts of drug abuses.

Can you imagine if “stop and frisk” was the policy of campus police departments across the United States? Can you imagine how much marijuana, cocaine, and Adderall might be seized if police began to stop those who met the profile of the pot-smoking, Adderall-popping scholastic menace?

If colleges become the epicenter for the war on drugs, schools might as well institute checkpoints at each dorm door. If residents of public housing need to face 24-7 surveillance, shouldn’t college students, given rates of drunkenness, drug abuse, narcotic distribution, altercations, vandalism, and sexual violence, deserve similar scrutiny? Can you imagine the revocation of dorm residency or even expulsion for the first drug crime, for the first fight, or first violation of the law?

That a college culture based on student profiling and systematic incarceration is less likely to take hold than a return to typewriters and blackboards is telling. Even though there are five white drug users for every one black user between the ages of 18 and 25, even though drug use is rampant on college campuses, the war on drugs immunizes white America. As the war on drugs continues to target communities of color, and as police and prosecutors focus attention and resources on drug use within communities of color, particularly their poorest, the pill-popping, marijuana-smoking, and hard-narcotic-using future leaders of the United States are left to their own vices.

Whereas black and brown youth fit the profile in the war on drugs, white students—often those who are the drug users—go unprofiled, allowed to keep getting high.  This is the living example of white privilege—which Jamilah Lemieux brilliantly describes as “a hell of a drug”—something which allows the abuse of drugs and the continuation of a destructive and unjust drug war.

Had the war on drugs focused on white middle-class youth, had “stop and frisk” rid university culture of drugs, the war on drugs would have been over a long time ago. Rather than fighting for decriminalization, which appears more self-serving than anything, maybe it’s time for college students to stand up against the war on drugs. Now that is change I can believe in.

David J. Leonard is an associate professor and chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University.

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