Why people should think twice before judging students who use drugs
By Quinton Saxby
It is quite an experience to walk around campus on a Sunday morning to find empty cans of Keystone and Bud Light strewn about like shrapnel.
Though students who come to college work hard to receive an education, they still find time to drink a lot of alcohol and smoke a lot of pot in four years of undergrad.
This is the “good time” that students find so alluring—finally away from parents and largely under the radar of adult society, they can now revel in pleasurable excess.
“When I first got here, my expectations were pretty much fulfilled,” said Jordan,* a freshman at Ithaca College. “Those crazy going-out weekends with drinking—those were my expectations and that’s what we do.”
But a “good time” is not the principle reason for students’ excessive consumption of mind-altering substances. Beneath many students’ perpetual search for pleasure and intoxication is a drive to escape from the less gratifying reality of school and expectations.
However, it would be inaccurate and patronizing to generalize students as shallow, pleasure-seeking and incapable of making rational decisions. Instead, drinking and smoking patterns among college students are products of stress, expectations, the pressure to fit in and boredom.
Applying the term “self-medication” to the many forms of substance consumption is not too far off the mark. Some students, whether consciously or subconsciously, are “self”-treating their unpleasant reality with the “medication” of alcohol or pot. Medication is defined as a substance designed to treat a condition. So many students use these drugs to “treat” various anxieties.
In modern American culture, a lot of treatment is necessary. Teenagers are forced to fill predetermined roles they might not find appealing: the student, the worker, the spouse, the parent, the retired and then the deceased. This pressured environment causes college students to feel a sense of isolation as they attempt to embody the American Dream. Students are bored and lonely, disconnected from their studies, their social life and their identities.
Brian Karafin, an IC philosophy and religion professor, said that in modern Western culture, young adults find it very difficult to “find themselves.” That, “combined with the radical individualism of modern capitalist culture… forces people to try and initiate themselves.” Though they are forced to grow up in this damaging culture, students “still grow up, still need to share bonds with others, need to have some sense of a meaningful life-course, [and] need to know who they are,” he said.
Young adults are then forced to initiate themselves amidst a double standard in their society. On one hand, America’s drug of choice, alcohol, is seen as a great way to celebrate a football game, to toast a salary raise or to complement a big, fat cheeseburger. On the other hand, there’s a movement in colleges to stigmatize alcohol consumption, telling students that alcohol-free events are more fun. Colleges, like IC, focus more on chastising students for alcohol consumption instead of meeting them halfway, by signing something like the Good Samaritan policy which would be a compromise.
There’s another double standard between alcohol and pot: although they are both mind-altering drugs, pot has the added stigma of being illegal. This causes college officials, other authorities and even fellow students to pass moral judgment on students who smoke pot, while binge drinkers are just seen as a natural part of college.
“There are moral stigmas against pot,” said Pat,* an IC student. “There’s a negative stereotype against it, which I think is unmerited.”
Trying to grab a hold of some sense of identity or find satisfactory answers to life’s big questions is a confusing and conflicting process for students. Because of this, many students “medicate” themselves with alcohol or pot as a way of escaping and trying to make sense of aspects of life that really don’t make sense.
Tyler,* another IC student, argues that students do this the minute they set foot on campus.
“What’s one of the first things you might do? You drink.”
Karafin loosely compares the use of drugs in America to the idea of a “vision quest” in other cultures.
“All traditional cultures have rites of initiation,” Karafin said. “Often this requires a physical and psychic ordeal, as in Native Americans’ ‘vision quests’ in which the youth goes out into the wilderness alone, fasts and prays for a vision that will show him something of his path in life and role in the community.”
He said, however, in America, young people are dissatisfied with answers mainstream culture is providing them.
“The surrounding pop-culture is largely devoted to entertainment rather than psycho-spiritual guidance, so it doesn’t really help much when you’re facing your inner demons or forces of the mind.”
American college students are using drugs in an attempt to find some answers.
“At least for some people it is an escape route, especially after you’ve had a hard exam and all you want to do is not think about it anymore,” Tyler said.
According to this student, weekend drinking is fueled at least in part by a drive for escapism and a dissatisfaction with school. Escaping from one reality, some students drink and enter another, and the week is split between two different states of mind. Alcohol easily suppresses inhibitions temporarily.
“Alcohol makes you forget. You drink and you try to forget,” Tyler said.
Pot also helps students escape from their conflicted, stressful week.
“Pot lowers your inhibitions and allows you to be free and not really worry about things that would typically bog you down during the week,” Pat said.
Not only do drugs give students the chance to forget their anxieties, but it allows them to make awkward social situations a little less awkward. It’s easier for students in American colleges to conform by drinking or smoking than to make a public statement about their attitudes towards alcohol or pot.
“It’s a social thing,” said Julian Ciany, an IC sophomore. “You want to be included.”
Many students are especially vulnerable because of the isolating society they live in. American college students are so used to being independent that entering a room full of people with the purpose of solely socializing is in some ways unnatural, and alcohol or pot may be helpful in breaking down social barriers. Music is especially helpful in stemming awkwardness—imagine a party without constant background music.
Pat, who says she smokes pot on weekends, argued that pot not only lowers her inhibitions socially, but creatively as well.
“I’ve done a lot with drawing and sketching,” Pat said. “Pot has made a huge influence on that.”
Perhaps students feel disconnected from their creative side, a product of a society that forces them into conventional roles.
This unhealthy society calls for some treatment. Alcohol and pot therefore serve to aid students, playing very complex roles in a college environment. Whether these drugs allow students the opportunity to reduce tension, or act as social lubricants to deal with awkward situations, they ultimately provide some escape to students who are disillusioned with the answers given by an individualistic, materialistic American society. Students are dissatisfied with established roles, and react by finding new ways of thinking. If students are escaping, this means they are unhappy enough to leave behind old roles and try new ones that might go against the status quo.
“By encountering extremities of intoxication young people are testing themselves, seeing how they fare in the face of unleashed psychic forces,” Karafin said.
But whether or not students choose to do alcohol or pot or both, it is important not to moralize. Students choose to do these things not necessarily out of recklessness—there are bigger societal problems occurring, which may drive students to consume mind-altering substances. Whether these drugs can give satisfactory guidance is debatable, but students will continue to take the test.
*Names of students have been changed.
Quinton Saxby got crunk after spending hours editing this article. E-mail him at [email protected].