I am writing in response to an article written last week in the Campus Journal titled “Dorks on Drugs acquire through friends, use safely and widely, disappointed by stigma.” The casual tone of the article did not sit right with me – especially considering that the week’s national headlines included the 12 students hospitalized at Wesleyan after taking molly, and an update on heroin addiction in Vermont. That is not to say that every article about drugs needs to be frightening bad news – but was this lighthearted, sympathetic treatment of campus drug culture necessary?
My perspective on drugs is shaped by my studies in Neuroscience. I’ve also just returned from a semester abroad, during which I worked in a psychiatric hospital with an addiction specialist. Now, despite what my background might suggest, I am not writing to judge drug users or condemn the use of drugs. I am here to urge that we be critical and educated in our approach to the discussion, because it is a relevant and serious one that is worth having.
Even in its title, last week’s article alleges that campus drug use among dorks is a safe, innocuous niche-hobby and unfairly stigmatized. First of all, I’m not sure that drug use really is so stigmatized at Swarthmore. But lets say that it is: insofar as this stigma is vilifying drug-using individuals, then yes, it is problematic. We should not be calling anyone a bad person for doing drugs (and I will leave it to philosophy students to say if we ever can call anyone a bad person at all). But if drug use is stigmatized for its inherent dangers, and this stigma is causing students to refrain from taking potentially life-threatening risks, then this stigma seems warranted to me. Perhaps we are better off focusing our attention on attacking stigmas that do harm.
Now to address the issue of safety: drugs are psychoactive chemicals that work through a variety of mechanisms to temporarily alter our neurochemistry. The result is behavioral and cognitive effects, ranging from the mild to the dangerous and everything in between, but any time we cause a shift in a balance as delicate as the nervous system, we are taking a chance. No drug user, even a Swarthmore “dork” is immune. And the ubiquitous chance of something going wrong is increased when we cannot predict the intensity or type of neurochemical change that a drug induces. This is the case with many drugs that are cut with other ingredients, then sold under the auspices of being a certain, predictable substance.
If you are thinking to yourself, ‘this is pretty basic!’ you are right — this is basic information. But none of it was included in the article last week. And we are by no means beyond or above such considerations. Take what happened two weeks ago at Wesleyan University: on February 22, 12 students were hospitalized — including two in critical conditions — after taking what they believed to be molly, a “pure” form of MDMA. Given that many college students across the country take molly as a party drug, this could have happened anywhere — it could very well have happened here. While the author of last week’s article may be right that “users at Swarthmore are more educated than average, and care more about the quality of the substances they use,” there are factors out of any user’s control. I’d wager that the Wesleyan students also believed that they were educated, and that they cared about the identity of the drug they took that night.
Beyond the imminent danger of adverse, unexpected effects and/or overdose, psychoactive drugs can have lasting effects on the brain, well after usage ends. Addiction, for starters, is one such consequence, and leads to a myriad of others. Prolonged drug use (including use of alcohol and marijuana) can cause cognitive impairment such as memory and executive function loss, and a cascading slew of other effects. My point really is that none of us should have the hubris to speak lightly of drugs. Even drug users – especially drug users – must respect these substances and the havoc they are capable of wreaking on the brain.
For the purpose of fostering productive conversations about campus life, I’ll end with a simple suggestion: whether you find drugs fun or abhorrent, please take them seriously.