Changes to drug & alcohol policies inconsistent and irrational

Editor’s Note: This column originally ran in the September 5, 2014 issue of The Tech.

I suppose I was a bit too optimistic after hearing of changes to the Mind and Hand Book, especially of those relating to the Institute’s drug and alcohol policies. Given MIT’s apparent willingness to support policies consistent with the prevailing trend on college campuses to support harm-reduction with the adoption of a Good Samaritan policy for alcohol-related medical emergencies in February 2013, I had hoped, briefly, that the recent revisions would tackle the issue of substance abuse in a consistent and rational way.


Instead, the updates proffered by Dean Colombo and the Division of Student Life seek to force students to police their fellow students, while simultaneously omitting the protections that ought to be extended to those acting in good faith for the health of their peers.

First, I think we, administration included, must admit that drug use on campus is inevitable. According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 22% of full-time college students admit to the use of illicit drugs. Combined with the non-zero rate of drug use at those institutions with even the most draconian of policies (Brigham Young University reported 120 instances of disciplinary action stemming from substance abuse in 2011 and 2012), it is simply indefensible to believe that any amount of administrative intervention can drive the rate of substance abuse to zero.

Considering this reality, the response most appropriate to curb irresponsible use of drugs and alcohol is to focus on health and harm-reduction. Considering also that harm-reduction strategies specifically aimed at alcohol have been effective on many campuses nationwide, it seems absurd that the same approach would not be applied to the use of illicit drugs as well.

The recent changes to the Mind and Hand Book do not fall in line with this common-sense strategy, specifically in the realm of drug use. By threatening “disciplinary suspension and disciplinary expulsion… when a student has failed to summon medical assistance for someone… in medical jeopardy due to alcohol or substance use,” the DSL is requiring that students, under pain of sanction, act responsibly under duress, which is certainly something to be lauded.

However, as noted in The Tech’s news article about the policy changes, the same protections that exist to shield those acting responsibly in cases of alcohol abuse do not apply to those seeking help for drug-related medical emergencies. That is, the Institute is presently forcing students to police without a Kevlar vest. Although the article notes that Associate Dean Judy Robinson offered the tepid reassurance that “the fact that someone called for help may be taken into account if Committee on Discipline sanctions were considered after a drug-related incident,” an unofficial wink-and-nod is insufficient in discussions of a topic so serious.

Taken together with the introduction of a policy that holds students responsible for drug use undertaken in their residence by other students, a tragic hypothetical emerges: Suppose that I hold a gathering with some of my chums on a Saturday night. Some of us are underage, but we are all nonetheless consuming alcoholic beverages (while not playing Settlers of Catan, as drinking games are now expressly prohibited). Another one of our of-age hall mates walks into the room with some other beverage, which I can reasonably assume is alcohol. Some time later, he passes out, as his drink in fact contained GBL.

The revisions to the Mind and Hand Book now place me in an awfully precarious spot; should I call a transport, I may be held responsible for permitting drug use and underage drinking in my room, and if I do not and he experiences a medical emergency, I will also be punished for failing to report the incident. After a few drinks, the reasonable solution may well appear to be to haul him back to his room and hope for the best. It should be noted that, if he had instead consumed only alcohol, I would be protected by the Good Samaritan policy and there would be no hesitation in calling for medical assistance. Inconsistency abounds.

I can appreciate the fact that the Institute wishes to take a hardline approach to drug use as to appear as to not condone it. It is reasonable that the administration should want to curb the use of illicit substances on campus and its consequent ill effects on student life. But, the exclusion of a Good Samaritan policy for incidents involving drugs does not further that end. Instead, it runs counter to the very idea that the reason for a drug and alcohol policy in the first place is to protect students.