Submitted by Stanley McAfee, a student of the College and former president of the College of Charleston chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP).
Alcohol is practically unavoidable. You see advertisements for it on television, shelves of it in stores and the effects of it in the streets. Entire sectors of the economy are contingent on people having easy access to booze; nightlife in particular is practically synonymous with getting drunk (often at great expense) in restaurants, bars and clubs. Certainly, not everyone imbibes to the same degree, but not participating in this collective intoxication at all is considered unusual. There is a term for this. As Americans, we live in a drinking culture, and, as participants in that culture, we are forced to accept the unpleasant effects of alcohol consumption.
At best, excessive drinking causes sickness, vomiting and a nasty headache the next day (this “hangover,” so common a symptom that the word has entered our vernacular). At worst, it erodes our ability to make rational decisions, provokes violence, leads to loss of consciousness and more than occasionally causes death. For the most part, these are not merely side effects or complications that can be avoided with proper preparation. They are part and parcel of the experience, inexorable consequences of having too much to drink.
Properly handled, there is nothing wrong with the current state of affairs. Alcoholism is recognized and treated as a health issue. Establishments have a legal responsibility not to serve excessively intoxicated customers, and here at the College of Charleston, all incoming students are required to pass “AlcoholEdu,” which provides harm reduction tips for those who choose to drink. Much like the commercials we see on TV, they are urged above all else to “drink responsibly.” Alcohol use – at least by some non-negligible portion of the student body – is rightly treated as inevitable and steps are taken to mitigate the harms it can cause.
But I don’t bring these things up to demonize drinking or stigmatize people who use alcohol (I personally enjoy drinking). Rather, I bring them up to illustrate an outrageous double standard espoused by the College: that using cannabis (or marijuana, or pot, or weed) is somehow worse than drinking, and should therefore be avoided at all costs.
Purely in terms of negative health effects, this is patently false. While cannabis use is likely to have detrimental health effects – mostly associated with smoking, and most prevalent in chronic users – 600 milliliters of liquor can kill you, while 600 milligrams of pot will at worst make you have a bad time. The physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can also be fatal, and liver failure and heart disease are directly linked to heavy alcohol use. Yes, infrequent and responsible alcohol consumption is relatively benign—but the same can be said in spades for cannabis, and I don’t see the College putting up posters about the dangers of drinking or hosting “Bring Your Own Blunt” events in the Cistern Yard.
Pointing to the legal status of cannabis as a reason to abstain is also suspect: almost invariably, the students taking AlcoholEdu are underage freshmen for whom it is also illegal to drink. But, for some reason, this crime is not taken as seriously. Indeed, the College’s relatively lax punishments with regards to underage possession and consumption of alcohol seem to practically expect students to break the law. College students use cannabis with similar predictability. Why, then, is marijuana use treated so harshly? Or, equivalently: why is alcohol use treated so leniently?
The answer is that we live in a drinking culture. A college’s “entertainment value,” or reputation as a “party school,” is considered a selling point— and it’s not a party unless there’s booze. Accordingly, a vibrant Greek community – which, perhaps more than any other campus organization, is centered on alcohol – is valued and protected, in spite of being responsible (in fact, quite recently) for repeated alcohol-related abuses both here and on other campuses. Given the ubiquity of underage drinking, the College understands that cracking down too harshly would rapidly mean an enormous loss of revenue from tuition fees. Simply put, it is profitable to incorporate alcohol as an integral part of the college experience, a sentiment that I’m sure is shared by every business owner on King Street.
To their credit, the College does not necessarily encourage this behavior, and does provide resources for students whose relationship with alcohol has soured. But they hardly do enough to discourage it, either, and this hypocritical treatment of alcohol as somehow separate from or more acceptable than “drug use” does a disservice to the some 25% of College of Charleston students who come from states where cannabis is legal or decriminalized. Students who choose to use cannabis deserve the same leniency offered to those who choose to drink illegally.
Marijuana is safer than alcohol. It is high time for the College of Charleston to recognize this, end its unfair treatment of cannabis users and rethink its insensible drug policies to apply the same principles of harm reduction to students who prefer grass instead of a glass.