Between The Lines

Published on April 2, 2015

For Lucy, a current Columbia undergraduate, getting into the college drug trade was just a matter of habit when she arrived in New York. Back in high school, one of her friends sold drugs—soon, she was moving stuff around, too.

“It’s what I know,” Lucy says. She adds that dealing was a way to make a little extra money—she doesn’t receive financial aid from Columbia—without the time constraints of a more traditional job. As a bonus, she says, the profits were tax-free. (Lucy has since stopped dealing.)

Lucy and other campus users and dealers say that the Columbia drug scene is relatively small—most of it is casual marijuana and Adderall, a stimulant used to treat ADHD that’s increasingly popular among academically pressured high school and college students. More limited numbers of people also use cocaine (“blow”), MDMA (“Molly”), and psychedelics like LSD and ’shrooms. Other “hard” drugs like meth and heroin are extremely rare.

“Marijuana is definitely still mainly used as a way to relieve stress, even if it is in social groups,” Lucy says. “Most people I know say they smoke to deal with academic pressures, similar to how people drink.”

But exactly how widespread is drug use at Columbia? How are specific drugs tied to academic, social, or financial stresses? Are drugs a “problem” in any sense of the word? And are any of these things unique to Columbia or college students?

What drugs?

Hard data on drug use, like most illicit activities, can be difficult to come by and are often subject to various biases or shortcomings. Nevertheless, research surveys do give a general overview of trends and usage patterns—at least among respondents.

On the college level, one of the most comprehensive sources for student health data is the American College Health Association’s annual National College Health Assessment survey. The most recent report, published in the spring of 2014, includes responses from more than 79,000 students from 140 schools in the United States. According to Columbia Health, which has administered the survey here since 2005, the University typically receives more than 6,000 responses from both undergraduate and graduate students (you may have received an email asking you to complete the 2015 survey a few weeks ago).

Although Columbia Health declined to provide school-specific data, saying that the results cannot be released in isolation, it did say that “respondents have traditionally been representative of student enrollment and provided a statistically sound sample from which to work,” but noted that the University does have higher graduate student participation relative to other schools.

So what do the numbers say? In the spring 2014 report, just over 60 percent of undergraduates said that they had never consumed marijuana—compared to just over 20 percent for alcohol and 71 percent for cigarettes. For every other category of drugs on the survey, including cocaine, hallucinogens, and stimulants (which include study drugs like Adderall), more than 90 percent of respondents said they had never used.

Extrapolated to Columbia’s population, that would mean roughly 2,300 undergraduates have never used marijuana, 690 have never used non-prescribed stimulants (Adderall, Ritalin), 640 have never used MDMA, and 480 have never used cocaine. So not everybody, but not nobody either.

“Drug use on college campuses is relatively low across the country, even despite popular claims,” says psychology professor Carl Hart, who has written extensively on drugs and drug policy. He adds that he thinks the ACHA-NCHA data is pretty representative of nationwide trends.

According to Lucy, drug use at Columbia is relatively limited compared to in her Midwestern hometown and even at other universities in New York City. She attributes this to students coming from academically focused backgrounds where they may not have been exposed to as many drugs as the average American high schooler. Many students are also “scared” of getting caught, she adds.

“I don’t think there’s anything eye-opening at Columbia,” says Parker, an undergraduate dealer from the New York metropolitan area. “For people who don’t want to use drugs, there isn’t an overwhelming pressure at the end.”

The Columbian drug scene

Is drug use at Columbia unique? By and large, Hart doesn’t think so. Peak drug users in the U.S. are between the ages of 18 and 26, he says, regardless of whether or not they are attending college.

“That’s when you get the most risk-taking behavior in life, whether that’s drug use or sexual behavior or driving your car too fast,” he says. “So when I think of drug use at colleges, I don’t think it’s special. I think it’s just the phase or stage at which people people are in.”

Hart adds, however, that there are specific aspects about college drug use that are interesting to look at. If anything, drug use data among college students shows that many of the horrific side effects seen in media and public service announcements are overstated, he says.

“The thing about college students, however, is that, in many cases, they may demonstrate that you can use drugs, go to class, do well, graduate, and become a leader in your field,” he says. “I mean, just ask the president of the United States.” (Barack Obama, CC ’83, said in a 1995 memoir that he regularly smoked marijuana in high school).

Lucy and Parker say that, at Columbia, the two most popular products are marijuana and study drugs—both used in response to environmental stresses, albeit in different ways. Marijuana, a depressant, is used largely recreationally, while Adderall, a stimulant, tends to be more functional. And while business is relatively constant year-round, sales of the simulant skyrocket around midterms and finals, as students seek ways to stay up writing papers and cramming for tests. 

Note: Lucy’s and Parker’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

It’s also an interesting tidbit of drug economics. Lucy says that while during the off season she would sell two 30 mg Adderall XR extended-release capsules for around $15, that price would rise to $10 each during finals week. Parker says that when demand spikes at the end of semesters, supply sometimes just stops. “The guy you know who sells addy might only sell to his closer friends during finals week,” he says.

“It’s a serious supply and demand thing in the case of addys,” Lucy says. “If I sent out a text saying I have addys, I could sell them all in a day.”

While use of ADHD stimulants certainly occurs in many other environments, it is one of the more unique things at the college level—something the high-stress, high-achieving culture at university seems to encourage. And while binge alcohol consumption may decrease as students get older, epidemiology professor Guohua Li says that there isn’t a similar trend for drugs.

“They’re different drugs,” he says. “People use them for different purposes.”

Although Parker and Lucy make it sound like a majority of Columbia students use Adderall, actual numbers are a little murkier. According to the ACHA-NCHA survey, just over 8 percent of undergraduate respondents said they have used non-prescribed stimulants within the past 12 months (a separate ACHA report says that between 4 and 5 percent of college students actually suffer from ADHD). Other studies, however, have reported usage rates at specific colleges being as high as 34 percent. In a statement, Columbia Health said that the “reported use of non-prescribed stimulants is low, contrary to anecdotal belief.”

“If people can figure out a way to get an edge, they will try to do that. And sometimes people may think that taking a drug like Adderall helps them stay up and study longer,” Hart says.

At the same time, however, Hart says that the high-stakes, high-stress culture of places like Columbia means that students who choose to use drugs are less likely to “overindulge” and are more aware of the potential side effects they may experience. For Adderall, those could be insomnia or loss of appetite—things that users eventually have to account for, Hart says.

“You have to perform in your classrooms. You have to do well,” he says. “And, if there’s anything that disrupts that, you won’t be in this environment very long. So we have these environmental pressures that help contribute [to] a decrease in abnormal or pathological drug use.”

In a 2008 paper published in the Journal of American College Health, researchers looked at ADHD stimulant use at a southeastern U.S. college over the course of a year. Many of their findings are similar to what Hart, Parker, and Lucy say is the case at Columbia, with 72 percent of survey respondents saying they used pills for the reason of staying awake to study. “The most interesting, and unexpected, advantage that led students to use stimulants was not productivity but increased intelligence and heightened cognitive aptitude,” the researchers wrote.

The paper also noted that students were strategic in use, with many only taking medication during weekdays or periods of more intense schoolwork, like midterms or finals seasons. The educated college student knows how to best use the high-functional drug to cope with their high-achievement environment. In the conclusion, the researchers wrote: “The biggest barrier to prevention efforts, however, may be the professed effectiveness of the drug itself. Almost all participants claimed that ADHD medications were highly effective in increasing their attention span, making work more interesting, improving their cognitive abilities, and fighting fatigue … We are left to wonder, therefore, how to persuade students not to take stimulants that are so soundly praised for their effectiveness in a culture that increasingly justifies the means by the ends.”

It is for reasons similar to these that Hart says college students are less likely to smoke cigarettes than the general population—the other thing unique about college substance use, and something that Columbia Health confirmed. In the spring 2014 NCHA survey, more than 87 percent of respondents either said they had never smoked cigarettes or had not in the past 30 days.

In addition to limitations like campus smoking bans and local cigarette age laws, “the amount of intoxication you get from tobacco cigarettes seems to be limited, and so the risk-benefit ratio for the discerning student may not be favorable,” Hart says. “Whereas, when you take another drug, the benefits might outweigh the risk—particularly if you’re only engaging in the behavior once a month or some limited number of times per semester.”

Risk and response

What are some of those risks? Much has been written about the short- and long-term effects of using marijuana, and how it compares to alcohol and tobacco. For Adderall, Alice! Health Promotion says that short-term effects include paranoia, anxiety, and depression from withdrawal, and long-term effects include convulsions, irregular heartbeats, malnutrition, muscle twitching, and even altered brain functions.

Dealers point out, however, that at least when compared with drugs like cocaine, LSD, and MDMA, Adderall production is a lot better controlled. They’re more cautious when selling products for which the supply chain might be murky (one of the many risks of operating in an unregulated market). Both Lucy and Parker say that having good, reliable suppliers (generally other dealers in the city) is important for both quality and profitability.

Cocaine is almost always cut. “It’s fucked up some of the stuff that’s in blow,” Lucy says, adding that she finds it surprising that people don’t seem to be as concerned about potentially dangerous chemicals mixed in with the drug, or its effects on dosage levels.

Parker, who says he doesn’t deal much cocaine, judges the market for it slightly differently. “I don’t think people are assuming their cocaine is pure,” he says. “And as long as there’s nothing dangerous in there, people are just going to assume it’s cut.”

Rather, Parker says he’s more concerned with LSD—even though he has a test kit for his products. It’s because LSD has a reputation for having too-low doses, he says, which seems to have prompted people to try and increase their dose.

“I always worry about people who do psychedelics in the city, because so many things can go wrong, and have gone wrong,” he says. “With psychedelics, people can become unpredictable.”

Despite his worries about customers getting hurt using his product, Parker doesn’t feel a social responsibility to stop selling. People who are determined enough will still manage to get the drug from someone else, and the new dealer might be less careful than Parker, who tries to make sure what he sells is safe. “For more risky things, I definitely monitor who I sell to and follow up with them to see how it went,” he says.

For Lucy, having been involved in the trade for so long means that she’s also more aware about dosages and side effects—like why it might be a bad idea to take certain drugs with painkillers or alcohol, or while suffering from mental health issues. When she sold, she says she tried to communicate that knowledge to her customers.

But a dealer can’t always protect his customers, and sometimes bad things do happen. In those cases, the dealer can regret it, but he also has to move forward. “I do feel bad if I make money off someone who later gets hurt,” Parker says. “It feels awful, but it’s something I learn to live with.”

Still, one rarely hears about a drug-related incident on campus, partly due to student privacy laws, and partly because the proportion of drug users at Columbia is relatively small. On ACHA-NCHA, more than 98 percent of respondents either said they didn’t use drugs or said their drug use didn’t affect academic performance. Only 0.2 percent said they had been diagnosed or treated by a professional for substance abuse or addiction.

“Emphatically, no, we don’t have a drug-use problem on campus,” Hart says. “If we did, the students wouldn’t be here. The grades would reflect this. But that doesn’t mean the University shouldn’t do everything it can to identify people who have a problem. … We have that responsibility.”

Parker says that the focus should be on education and harm prevention. “People don’t really know what they’re putting in their bodies,” he says.

Asked about programs related to alcohol and drugs, Columbia Health pointed to initiatives like Responsible Community @ Columbia, Tobacco Cessation, BASICS, services through Counseling and Psychological Services, and the Alice! Health Promotion website.

And, at least on the undergraduate level, Columbia’s drug policy has changed over time. In 2011, Housing officially adopted a ‘Good Samaritan’ policy after a push by student councils and the group Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. The policy indemnified students who called emergency medical services while violating drug or alcohol policies in the hope that those at risk would not be afraid to seek help. Columbia University Emergency Medical Service’s longstanding policy had always been to maintain confidentiality and only treat and transport. It is important to note that individual schools at Columbia may maintain their own specific policies on drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, in addition to the  University-wide Policies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Culture and stereotypes

Despite a somewhat diverse spectrum of drugs used at Columbia, those who do use tend to keep to themselves, Parker says. There are those who smoke pot, those who use psychedelics, those who use study drugs, and a “smaller, more memorable group of people who use harder things” like cocaine or MDMA.

He does note, however, that those who purchase are not necessarily representative of everybody who uses, especially with drugs like marijuana and cocaine. “It’s very easy to get into weed,” he says. “People’s friends are doing it, and it spreads very easily between friends.”

Still, some stereotypes come through, Parker says with a chuckle: weed smokers are more “multicultural,” and stimulant users tend to be ”people who are willing and able to spend a lot of money on one night” (he says cocaine typically sells for around $80 per gram).

“A lot of people here are very entitled,” Parker says. “They want things immediately; they want it at this price; they’ll want it delivered.”

“It’s definitely lowered my view of Columbia students,” he adds thoughtfully.

Although Lucy also used to sell cocaine, she says that she’s had too little experience with fraternities or clubs to say whether rumors of those organizations being riddled with drugs are true. Within the trade, a lot of it is also about who knows whom and who has the best “connect,” or supplier for a particular product.

“For most people, it’s [selling is] a casual thing,” Parker says. “Most people do it because they have the means … to help out friends.” According to Lucy, those who sell fall into two rough categories: people who need the money, and people who see it as a way to cover their own drug costs.

Since it’s so casual, and because many groups of people who use are so isolated from one another, it’s difficult determining how many people are selling and how many people are buying. Lucy reckons that she’s one of just four or five student dealers. Parker says there are probably a lot more—that he knows at least four or five just in his year. None of this includes other, off-campus drug dealers who also serve the Columbia market.

*  *  *

On December 7, 2010, Columbia made national headlines after the New York Police Department raided East Campus and 114th Street brownstones and arrested five students after a months-long investigation. The students, prosecutors said, had sold nearly $11,000 worth of marijuana, Adderall, cocaine, MDMA, and LSD to undercover cops.

It was a rare moment of the so-called “War on Drugs” spilling onto Columbia’s doorstep. Photos released by that office showed “Drug Dens”—rooms in EC townhouses, three fraternity brownstones, and the Intercultural Resource Center—where the deals allegedly took place. Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan said at the time: “The students arrested today supplied dangerous substances to their friends and other students to turn a quick profit, but subjected themselves to risks, of which they were either ignorant or in denial. These students were playing with fire.”

Note: The Eye contacted four of the five former students arrested during Operation Ivy League. All four either did not respond or declined to be interviewed for this article.

But despite the fanfare surrounding the Operation Ivy League sting, that bust remains the exception that proves the rule. Operation Ivy League nabbed five Columbia drug dealers; that year, there were more than 4,500 drug felony convictions in Manhattan alone. The lack of drug busts on Columbia’s campus may have to do with Columbia’s reputation as a wealthy white enclave. Hart says the police tread carefully around the University, and he notes that Columbia students have the protection of their social status.

“Can you imagine if we had a number of those Operation Ivy Leagues going on on this campus, how upset people would be?” Hart says.

Both Lucy and Parker acknowledged that being white college students makes them less likely to be targets of enforcement, though they remain cautious.

“At this point, I will listen to my paranoia more than anything else,” Parker says. He adds that he plans to stop dealing in the near future. “It’s very stressful. It eats up a lot of time, takes up a lot of mind space.”

“You meet a lot of people, a lot of people I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Parker says. Lucy jokes that while her former job didn’t pad her résumé, it taught her valuable life lessons—like how to avoid police and Public Safety and how to distribute risks by storing products in different places.

Drugs on campus, as causal as their direct use might be, also remind us of how inexplicably connected all aspects of Columbia life is to the world around us—even as we study, socialize, and some occasionally snort a line within these hallowed halls.

We may find reasons to think that there is something special, something unique, something that needs to be addressed about drugs on campus, but statistics and anecdotal evidence indicate there might not be. And regardless of whether we judge drug use or drug sales to be morally or physically “good” or “bad,” it remains that people use them for a variety of unique reasons. They may be political. They may be social. They may simply be academic. What we can be sure of is that drug use is not always what we think it is.

“Students typically overestimate what’s going on,” Hart says. “What we see on television and media has to be a little bit exaggerated; otherwise, people don’t pay attention.

“And so when people see these things, it helps shape their view.”

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