Swarthmore Community Fosters Drug Abuse

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Even from thirty feet away, I knew it was a pipe. The circle of underclassmen—all of whom I knew, at least in passing—was handing it around. Each one brought it to their lips, lit the bowl, and, giving that unmistakable thousand-yard stare, blew out a cloud of white smoke. They then handed it to the next person, and the process began again. Only at Swarthmore, I thought as I walked past, could they be doing this at three in the afternoon. I couldn’t help but think, in spite of myself, that there was something wrong with how freely, almost thoughtlessly, Swarthmore students take drugs, and the degree to which socializing depends on the use of drugs.

It’s often said that, at Swarthmore, the biggest nights for partying are Thursday and Saturday. This is true. However, those who say this neglect to mention that, in many cases, Friday is also usually a common night for partying, or that many students also drink and smoke on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.

Walking around campus after dark, you’re almost certain to run into more than a few circles of people squatting in the grass or sitting on benches, casually passing around a joint. Go inside the dorms, and you’ll see people in their rooms and in the hallways buzzed, stoned, or both. What’s troubling is not that these students are endangering themselves. After all, from their perspective, they aren’t. There simply isn’t much physical risk of danger from drug use at Swat. To them there’s nothing out of the ordinary about smoking and drinking every day of the week; why worry about something you do almost every day? Instead, the problem is a cultural one.

I’m not making this critique because I don’t have experience with drugs. Little of what I’ve seen at Swat is new to me. I come from a small town with little to do for the under-50 set. Kids in my school drank, smoked, and flirted with other substances as early as fourteen. I understand why: they were bored. But that doesn’t change the fact that their behavior was unhealthy. I can’t remember many parties in high school that didn’t end in at least one person vomiting. After a while I became somewhat blasé about it; at the last party I went to before graduation, I had a calm, well-mannered conversation sitting on the lawn two feet from a friend passed-out in a puddle of his own bile.

The problem is not that Swarthmore students are doing drugs. The problem is that social life at Swarthmore is in large part founded upon the casual use of alcohol and marijuana. As a consequence, there’s almost nothing to do for those who don’t want to do drugs, who can’t smoke or drink for whatever reason, but who don’t want to cloister themselves in their dorm rooms or in the libraries at night. Even the “alternative” parties hosted by NuWave usually involve heavy drinking. Of course, it’s possible to be sober while surrounded by people who are drunk and stoned, but it’s difficult not to be miserable under such circumstances. Being around drunk people when you’re sober is like playing jazz to an audience of metalheads.

Is this situation a result of that fabled demon of fifth-grade DARE programs: peer pressure? Not exactly. It seems instead to stem from a lack of imagination. Swatties simply cannot think of anything else to do. They lack options, or at least think they lack options, so they do the most obvious thing they can do, smoke and drink. The problem is not bad behavior that needs to be put to an end; it is, rather, a collective mindset too narrow to allow for other possible courses of action.

So, you ask, what’s the solution? And all I can do is shrug my shoulders. This isn’t the kind of problem that has a simple, technical solution—do X, Y, and Z, and lo and behold, suddenly it’s possible to be sober and happy at Swarthmore. No, this is a wicked problem. One that requires an entirely new mindset. It’s a change that begins at the most fundamental level: the level of individual students.

But what can one Swattie do? No more than this: ask that you take care of yourself. This means being selfish to a certain degree. Each and every one of us must consider: Am I doing what I want? Or am I doing what I think I should want? The two should never be confused.


  1. I’m a junior, I’ve never done drugs, not even marijuana, and I’ve drunk alcohol about three times in my life, and only once that can actually be considered a “drink” rather than a tiny sip of something alcoholic. (for those curious, I had a vodka martini over the summer, about 4 tablespoons of vodka mixed with a pint and a half of cranberry juice, orange juice, and crushed ice, in a plastic disposable cup with 3 other volunteers in the crappy house we were rooming in on my last day)

    I’ve only once felt pressured to avoid social interaction, and that was for extremely personal reasons that I won’t go into that don’t involve alcohol or drugs. I’ve dropped by a couple of parties, including the yule ball thing and the running team thing in ML, for a few minutes, before leaving–the former because my Tourette’s flared up since I was too busy talking nonstop to pay attention to it and the latter because it was too loud for my tastes and there wasn’t enough food to keep me interested, though I did end up singing the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s royal anthem at the top of my lungs for reasons that I’m pretty sure made sense at the time (it was late, I was tired, and I’d been studying history while listening to 19th century German military marches and Communist songs before the party noise made it impossible to study).

    Quite frankly I don’t know where you’re getting this impression that Swarthmore is somehow a drug-obsessed campus or that its culture is so reliant on drugs. This isn’t Weed–I mean, Reed. We’re open about using drugs and alcohol, sure. But does that mean that social life on campus is dependent on these? No.

    Not /once/ have I ever felt the social pressure to do drugs or alcohol. Frankly, the biggest problem I’ve ever had with drugs on campus is that one guy who kept smoking weed in his dorm room with the windows shut last year. That’s just rude; if you’re going to smoke anything, weed or tobacco, have the decency to do it outside where it won’t permeate the whole floor.

    tl;dr: I have no idea where you’re getting this impression that Swarthmore student life is deeply rooted in casual substance use. I’m a near-complete teetotaler, never experience pressure to drink or use drugs, and my social life is great; if I, a socially-awkward homeschooled kid with multiple neurological issues, can do it without feeling lonely or whatever, I have serious reason to doubt your idea that being sober at Swarthmore while having an active social life is hard.

    Also, as a Sabaton fan, I resent the comparison of metal fans to drunk people. Metal is a perfectly respectable art form, and jazz is in no way superior.

  2. I have never drunk or smoked or been to a “party” at Swarthmore, yet it doesn’t mean there are no other ways to relax. I hope you don’t have the impression that sober swatties have to cry in bed on Saturday night. Simply chatting with friends in lounge/library, or if possible, find people to play board game, could be much more preferable than usual “parties” for some people.

  3. Speaking as an upperclassman, there’s a point to be made about the normalization of excessive drug use, but this isn’t it. I’ve always had friends drinking, but the experiences which define my experience with friends at Swat are things like the following:

    Sneaking into Kohlberg classrooms at midnight to watch movies. Restaurant week with ten broke friends. Sitting on Parrish porch talking politics at 1 in the morning. Sitting around a campfire rising pop tarts in the Crum. Playing board games at six in the afternoon on a Thursday. Participating in club activities. Sledding down Willets hill on a cardboard box for an hour. Staying up until three in the morning singing along to Queen albums on a Wednesday. Playing pool while waiting for a pizza to be delivered.

    My freshman year was defined by the fact that there were no parties Friday nights, and we’d go out of our way to try to do other things. An open mind was our act of rebellion. I haven’t seen any sign that this attitude has faded.

  4. I would be drunk as much as I could without it affecting my work while at Swarthmore because it was such a miserable, stressful place. After being drained/stressed from working all the time, I really didn’t have the stamina to do much else. Drinking was one of the few things that would take the edge off of the constant stress of Swat.

    I’m aware that I pretty much just described myself as an alcoholic. However, as I was told by an upperclassmen when I was a freshman, “it’s not alcoholism until you graduate.” Now that I’m out, I don’t drink nearly as much or as frequently as I did at school, nor do I drink just to be unstressed for a little while.

    It was not healthy and I am not going to pretend it was okay. I went to CAPS weekly, talked to SAMs, etc. to help deal with the stress of Swat, but I could not find another way to deal with the stress. I was just doing my best to cope. I truly don’t think I could have made it through Swat without what constitutes substance abuse.

    I fully agree that Swarthmore doesn’t have a good culture to be in if you are someone who doesn’t use drugs. But please, please keep in mind a lot of people are probably like I was, just trying to cope and make it through any way possible.

  5. What a majority of the people who left comments seem to not fully grasp is that not everyone is put in an environment in which they belong. Not everyone reacts similarly to environments to which they are placed.
    I am a first year in Willets. This is one of the worst possible dorms, for me, as I’m substance-free and the Willets environmental peer-pressure is just too much.
    In the first few weeks of college, there were two very real and serious instances of peer pressure leading to horrible drinking times. I’m substance free, but these are things that I saw. One person had his friends pressure him into chugging a whole bottle, much more than he ever wanted. Someone else was forced into a room and locked until he and some random person finished a bottle of alcohol.
    What are you supposed to do? Pretend like these events never happened?
    There are definitely many more words to say, but, alas, this is just a comments section.
    The author, George, has a nice voice, by the way, you should get to meet him.

    • Urgh, Willets–I was there freshman year with two other guys, fortunately they were both great dudes, we’re still friends, but oh man it wasn’t great being three quiet nerdy dudes in the room right next to the 1st floor common room. It was loud as hell on weekends and Thursday nights and if we went outside the room it always stank of weed and booze Thursday nights through Monday mornings (the cleaning people came through after we left for class and thankfully they did a fantastic job every time, otherwise the dorm would’ve been unlivable by fall break; really the cleaning people here deserve more respect, everybody should take time out of there day to thank them for keeping our dorms livable). One time I was in the bathroom and two dudes half-carried two girls who were so drunk they could barely stand in so that the girls could throw up in the toilets. Perfectly responsible, appropriate thing to do in response to a friend getting stinking drunk, but on a Thursday night? With classes Friday morning???

      Once I got to Glorious ML Motherland, though, the craziest thing that goes on is a Nerf gun war on Friday nights; it’s like a different planet. You should definitely try getting a room here next year, it’s great.

      I would definitely support the administration adding a substance-use question to the dorm questionnaire, because it’s really just annoying and unhelpful to be surrounded by noisy Thursday night parties and the stink of spilled cheap beer for three and a half straight days per week when you aren’t hugely interested in getting drunk and just want to study or maybe play a strategy game in your spare time.

    • I don’t understand why people think this unique to Swarthmore. In fact Swarthmore is one of the most teetotaling-catering campuses I’ve ever been on. Articles like these are what puts the administration in the corner and causes the hyper-regulation of fun.

  6. What campus are you on? I remember Swat as being a place where people, with drugs or without, played catan, went skinny dipping in the crum, discussed political theory into the wee hours…honestly, maybe get new friends? Because I never felt like my friends were just stoners who didn’t know how to socialize. My only criticism about swat was that smart people stressed too much about school work and didn’t hang out enough!

  7. To paraphrase JT Pseudonym, there’s a good point to be made about the culture of drugs and drinking at Swat, but I think it’s getting a little lost in this article.

    Like the author, I’ve found that even among my friends for whom drinking and/or drugs aren’t a part of their identity (i.e. not self-identified stoners or partiers), “let’s get drunk” often gets treated as a social activity, as a stand in for, for instance, “let’s have a heart-to-heart and also some alcohol,” “let’s go to a party and also have some alcohol,” “let’s play cards and also have some alcohol,” or “let’s have sex and also some alcohol.” If like me, you want heart-to-hearts, parties, card games, and sex as activities in and of themselves, and prefer alcohol as a complement to them (or not at all) rather than a premise for them, this can be frustrating and troubling. I think the author wildly overstates this phenomenon — as others above have said, there’s an abundance of ways to socialize at Swat outside of drug and alcohol use and abuse, and a lot us do that! — but it’s certainly worth talking about how and why drinking and drugs become fixtures in (certain kinds of) socializing (among some people) at Swat. I’m pretty sure it’s not because of the lack of imagination stated by the author, or at least not *just* because of it.

    There are a lot of things besides lack of imagination that might lead to excessive alcohol and drug use: the incredible academic and financial stress of a $60,000 per year school where overworking ourselves to the point of illness is expected and even celebrated, the perceived need for a social (and sexual) lubricant when so many of us are swimming in swawkwardness, the pervasive cultural images in this country that normalize unhealthy alcohol and drug use as social staples or coping mechanisms, a host of other social factors…

    I’d like to see more discussions of alcohol and drugs on campus that take these into account. I really hope for a campus dIaLoGuE that takes a nuanced look at the role of alcohol and drugs in our academic, social, emotional, and sexual lives, beyond condemning alcohol and drug use and abuse or, conversely, advocating for everyone’s right to be smashed.

  8. This year on the Daily Gazette:


    Glad to see you guys are embracing diversity by hiring Chicken Little as your editor.

    • Dude, these are all op-eds. They retracted the first one due to its poor quality, and the other two have been analyzed and criticized in the comments, thereby promoting substantive discussion.

      The DG’s doing fine, don’t hate on them for other peoples’ writing.

  9. Umm … I graduated a few years ago at this point, but I’m truly not sure what campus you’re describing. I smoked weed maybe 3 times in my four years at Swat and almost completely abstained from alcohol for health reasons, and like … there was never an issue? And, sure, some of my friends drank more than I did or did drugs more frequently than I did, but there was never a lack of “things to do” that didn’t involve alcohol/substance use. My guess is the only answer to this, if you’re truly feeling pressured by people around you to do things you’re not comfortable with is … “find new friends”

  10. Hey y’all- just a couple of thoughts. I think the author makes an important point that there certainly are Swatties (as there are at many colleges with stressful academic environments and small campuses) that engage in a social life largely associated with being intoxicated. However, as a senior who has lived all over campus, I have really only seen the behavior the author is describing associated with a few communities, and particularly freshman.

    One thing I think important to mention to the author is that I’ve found social life at Swarthmore like some of the commenters above in many ways to be Ad-Hoc. There is no particular space that you will walk by and see people participating in “substance free social life” (maybe in part because we don’t have a student center) but that life tends to extend across the entire campus. For what it’s worth, most of my friends would describe me as a particularly social person, and I’ve never lacked in things to do at Swarthmore– my freshman year large groups would often be congregated for hours around the ping-pong table on Parrish fourth, I’ve spent many nights staying up far too late playing Magic the Gathering in a Kohlberg or Trotter classroom, or watching movies/talking in Science Center. To anyone feeling like the author, I would definitely recommend both pursuing these types of activities with friends, as well as joining extracurricular activities associated with doing fun things–great way to get to know new people that share interests.

  11. Thank you for the sincere article, George.
    In a way I feel the same. The only largely sober social group I experienced was during my freshman year, with a group of seniors who had a healthy balance between casual drinking and hanging out. From sophomore year on, I was increasingly aware that my new friend groups were made up of people who binge drank and abused hard drugs of all sorts. We have mostly drifted away due to different interests (I drink moderately and don’t do any drugs).
    I am still looking for a close friend group that has fun with mostly sober social activities.

    So this is the Swat version of Fermi’s paradox: If there are so many wonderfully nerdy and weird late-night intellectuals and political and film buffs (like me), then why haven’t I met and connected with any?

  12. Thank you for the sincere article, George.
    In a way I feel the same. The only largely sober social group I experienced was during my freshman year, with a group of seniors who had a healthy balance between casual drinking and hanging out. From sophomore year on, I was increasingly aware that my new friend groups were made up of people who binge drank and abused hard drugs of all sorts. We have mostly drifted away due to different interests (I drink moderately and don’t do any drugs).
    I am still looking for a close friend group that has fun with mostly sober social activities.

    So this is the Swat version of Fermi’s paradox: If there are so many wonderfully nerdy and weird late-night intellectuals and political and film buffs (like me), then why haven’t I met and connected with any? Please tell me where you are.

  13. Parent here, so I hope you don’t mind gramps chiming in. The only thing missing in this debate is that the younger you start with substance abuse, the higher your risk of developing a chronic problem (no pun intended). And a chronic problem means social and health issues, and it also means underperformance and failure to achieve potential, which is, after all, what college is about. Drinking and drugs aren’t unique to Swat; it’s a human potential problem that should be addressed broadly, but Swat has the stature to begin that discussion. I’d also argue that substance abuse problems are far more common than the alcohol advertising industry would have you believe. Oh, and a permanent coffee house where students perform would be a good alternative, if one if you enterprisin’ youngins wants to start that. Keep up the discussion; this is good and healthy.

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