Substance abuse and the Big Green

by Ruben Gallardo | 5/18/18 3:35am

Alcohol and substance use at the College forms part of a wider nationwide dialogue about high-risk behavior on college campuses. Dartmouth’s drug and alcohol policies have drastically changed over years, but most recently, the College has implemented new standards and refined current policies while continuing to offer a variety of programs that aim to reduce high-risk drinking and drug use among students. As the administration continues to evaluate current standards and programs dealing with alcohol and substance use, experts on substance use, students and alumni interviewed by The Dartmouth share their perspective on these policies.

Native American studies professor N. Bruce Duthu ’80 said that pervasive drinking, peer pressure to consume substances and the consumption of marijuana occurred during his time as a student at the College. He recounted that the ease of accessibility to substances, an ethos of pride for engaging in risky behavior and a lack of enforcement by the College and Hanover officials created an environment that dismissed substance abuse just as a common trend among college students.

“I can remember that folks drank [alcohol] and smoked pot with impunity,” Duthu said. “People were not hiding in their rooms. I had a classmate who would built these elaborate bongs, and when Safety and Security would do rounds and see [them], nothing [would] ever happen.”

In a recent Pulse survey on alcohol use at Dartmouth, out of 1,549 respondents, 8.5 percent indicated having eight to nine drinks on a typical night out, 16.2 percent said they have six to seven drinks, 27.8 percent indicated having four to five drinks, 19.5 percent indicated drinking two to three drinks, and 16.3 percent said they did not drink, as of press time.

In the same survey, 77.4 percent of the respondents said they had no instances of “blacking out” in the past two weeks, 18.4 percent indicated “blacking out” one to two times and 2.2 percent said they “blacked out” three to four times.

Based on another Pulse survey on drug prices, 18.2 percent of the 631 Dartmouth respondents said that marijuana is their favorite drug, 2.9 percent indicated nicotine as their favorite and 2.5 percent said cocaine. On the other hand, 52.1 percent said none of the drugs were their favorite and 17.6 percent declined to answer.

An anonymous female student at the College said that she drinks alcohol three to four times a week, depending on her workload, and smokes marijuana about three times a week. She explained that because she enjoys very active social environments where she has the opportunity to meet and interact with different people, she ultimately engages in alcohol and drug use since these tend to be present in these types of social environments.

“I have friends here that don’t drink or smoke at all and they live very different social lives than I do,” she said. “They are still pretty social and active on campus, but for example, my friend will be making waffles on a Saturday night while I’m playing pong in a basement somewhere.”

Director of the office of judicial affairs Katharine Strong said that the alcohol and drug policy states that the College abides and upholds federal and state laws regarding alcohol and other drugs. Strong added that after an incident occurs, judicial affairs reviews the report and determines whether a violation of policy did or did not occur if the incident were to be true.

According to the College’s alcohol and drug policy, the College’s policies aim to promote moderation, safety and individual accountability for those who choose to engage in substance use, and maintain a community where the effects of substance abuse and the behavioral problems associated with the disorder are openly discussed.

According to the director of the student wellness center Caitlin Barthelmes, high-risk drinking is a public health issue at all college campuses. Therefore, the student wellness center focuses on helping students make decisions about engaging in substances that align with their values and keeps them as safe and healthy as possible, she said.

Strong said that when there is an incident in which a student allegedly engaged with alcohol in a manner that may violate the College’s standards, the student wellness center contacts all involved students to offer them the opportunity to participate in the Brief Alcohol Screening & Intervention for College Students program. She added that if judicial affairs determines that a violation of the College’s standards occurred, then students are required to participate in BASICS.

“We know that when a student has a risky incident around substances, that that can be a teachable moment,” Barthelmes said.

College President Phil Hanlon announced the elimination of hard alcohol on campus as part of the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” program on Jan. 26, 2015. According to the campus-wide announcement, the policy aims to “tackle the challenge of excessive drinking” by prohibiting the possession and consumption of hard alcohol on campus by any individual or groups.

Interim director of the department of Safety and Security Keysi Montás said that the procedures of Safety and Security when dealing with the presence of alcohol and other substances has not really changed since the implementation of the hard alcohol ban because these procedures are guided by federal laws.

According to Barthelmes, changes to the programs and initiatives at the Student Wellness Center occurred prior to the launch of “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” and the environmental changes brought by the hard alcohol ban overlapped with their efforts to shift the environment around alcohol and substance use.

Barthelmes said that individuals need to evaluate all metrics related to alcohol and substance use — such as alcohol-related incidents and Good Samaritan calls — in relation to each other because these factors influence each another.

Strong added that upward and downward trends in the data do not necessarily indicate a change in student behavior, but may be rather explained by other factors such as the expansion of enforcement efforts by judicial affairs and the office of residential life.

“Sometimes when people see a rise in incidents, they automatically attribute that to a rise in risky behavior,” Barthelmes said. “In actuality, that could [indicate] a success because we are paying attention, enforcing policies and giving students the opportunity to [participate] in a follow-up intervention.”

Based on an undergraduate student alcohol intoxication incident report that compares data from the academic year 2011-12 to 2016-17, medical encounters with reported blood alcohol concentrations above 0.25 decreased from 62 encounters in 2011-2012 to 32 encounters in 2012-13. These medical encounters with BAC above 0.25 increased from 31 encounters in 2013-14 to 37 encounters in 2014-15, but decreased once again to 35 encounters in 2015-16 and to 30 encounters in 2016-17.

In the 2014-15 year, there were 347 reports of alcohol related incidents with Safety and Security and/or residential life. This figure increased in 2015-16 to 414 encounters, but decreased to 388 encounters in 2016-17.

Students made 126 Good Samaritan calls in 2011-12, 95 calls in 2012-13 and 91 calls in 2013-14. The number of Good Samaritan calls increased from 74 calls in 2014-15 to 96 calls in 2015-16 and to 131 calls in 2016-17.

On Sep. 9, 2017, senior associate dean of student affairs Liz Agosto ’01 announced in a campus-wide email that the Good Samaritan policy would now cover students impaired by alcohol or other drugs.

According to Strong, after hearing concerns from students about calling for assistance from Safety and Security on friends who may have consumed other substances besides alcohol, judicial affairs explored the possibility of updating the Good Samaritan policy to also cover the use of other drugs by evaluating policies at peer institutions and speaking to relevant stakeholders.

“What [we] have is a policy that takes away the concern about students [also using other drugs] earlier,” Strong said. “What we wanted to do was to remove barriers from people getting medical assistance when needed.”

Judicial affairs sends “thank you” notes to organizations who make a Good Samaritan call, and, as of this year, individual students who make a Good Samaritan call also receive a “thank you” notes to recognize them for getting help for another student, according to Strong.

Montás noted that the procedures followed by Safety and Security officers when they come across illicit drugs remains unchanged since the expansion of the Good Samaritan policy. Safety and Security officers must take possession of the drugs, inventory them and then turn it over to law enforcement with a copy of the report that does not include any identifying information of anybody who was in possession, he said.

“If the Hanover Police decides to pursue [a case] as a matter of violation of law, then Hanover Police has to make a formal request to receive a copy of our report,” Montás said. “We are protecting our students in accordance to [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] and [this procedure] ensures that [the student’s] safety is guaranteed.”

Montás, who previously worked in the security departments at New York University and at the University of New Mexico, said that alcohol and substance use in college campuses is a nationwide issue that is not unique to Dartmouth. He added that the rural location of the College and the student-dominated social environment makes the issue of substance use more visible than at institutions in urban settings.

“It’s a nationwide conversation that needs to happen when it comes to the use of alcohol,” Montás said. “There are other nations in the world that do not have to have this issue. We have a culture that needs to address both high risk drinking in college campuses and also at the national level [outside of these campuses].”

Psychological and brain sciences professor Kyle Smith, whose research focuses on how the brain generates reward, motivation, actions and habits, said that all drugs of abuse activate the dopamine system, a neurotransmitter that influences human motivation to pursue common rewards such as food and sex. Drugs usually cause the amount of dopamine activated and released to exceed what is normally caused by normal rewards.

Evidence suggests that adolescents from the age of 13 to around 21 exhibit more compulsive behavior and have dopamine system that is more primed to be responsive to the effects of drugs compared to adults, according to Smith. Therefore, adolescence is a time of vulnerability where people are more likely to try drugs, he added.

According to Duthu, the College eliminated the freshman office responsible for the welfare and transition of incoming students to campus during the 2008 economic crisis, but he believes that Dartmouth should consider reestablishing this office to help freshmen acclimate to their new environment and to increase institutional responsibility around substance use by the student body.

This year, the student wellness center will participate in a larger internal assessment of the division of student affairs to collect information from students to analyze the impact of current initiatives, especially those launched as part of “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” according to Barthelmes.

Barthelmes added that the student wellness center has also recently focused on expanding preventative measures, such as offering students from at-risk populations the opportunity to participate in a preventative BASICS session. It is also considering expanding the online Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention program, which launched in the winter .

“Three years ago, ‘Moving Dartmouth Forward’ launched a lot of these new initiatives,” Barthelmes said. “I think now we are approaching the time to come back and gather all [that information] and say what, if anything, can we learn three years later.”

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