Harvard on the Rocks
Away from the dancing and music in the common room, past the keg of beer in the crowded bathroom, and down the dark hallway, six undergraduates sit cramped in a well-lit bedroom. Smoke billows as one undergraduate takes a drag and passes a joint along; everyone laughs at nothing in particular. The mellow torpor of the smokers stands in contrast to the drunken welter in the common room, where the majority of students are tippling.
Drug use at Harvard has been around as long as there have been Harvard students. Knowing looks were exchanged a few years ago when eighteenth-century wine bottles were excavated in the Yard. While perhaps a third of today's undergraduates smoke marijuana from time to time, studies suggest that almost 90 percent drink alcohol in some form.
"Overwhelmingly, alcohol is the drug of choice among students," says Gail Gramarossa, manager of health education at UHS. In a survey of Harvard freshmen last year, 36 percent said they had one to four drinks every time they drank, and 14 percent said they had five to nine. In a similar study of seniors, 53 percent said they had one to four drinks, and 17 percent had five to nine. Roughly 4 percent of both groups had more than ten drinks.
While health-care professionals and administrators are concerned by the fact that students drink, they are more alarmed by how much they drink and why. According to Dr. David Rosenthal, director of the University Health Services (UHS), the major health problems facing Harvard students are all alcohol-related. The likelihood of accidents, date rape, depression, fights, and sexually transmitted diseases all increase with alcohol intake. Last year only two students were admitted to Stillman Infirmary for drug overdoses, but 33 were admitted for alcohol poisoning.
The impact of substance abuse extends beyond the sphere of health. "The huge majority of disciplinary cases before the Administrative Board are drug- and alcohol-related," says Virginia MacKay-Smith '78, secretary of the board. "Every year there are a few dozen drug cases where University policy is violated, and maybe fifty where alcohol is an element. It's not only a major health problem but an academic and social one as well."
Administrators dealing with the issue are quick to point out that they are not peddling teetotalism. Though excessive drinking may be deleterious to undergraduates, "It's such a major part of what everyone does," says Gramarossa. "It's a real social norm to drink a lot. How do you intervene without saying don't drink at all? 'Just say no' doesn't take reality into account." Says Elena Huang '95, co-chair of Room 13, a Harvard peer counseling organization, "In many ways it's just part of our age, who we are, what we do. There is definitely alcohol abuse on campus. Harvard students are smart, but not all of them know how to handle drinking. A lot of people drink too much."
UHS has recently applied for a federal grant to examine undergraduate attitudes toward alcohol and other drugs. And this year, for the first time, Harvard will participate in an ongoing survey of student alcohol use run by Henry Wechsler, lecturer in health and social behavior, at the School of Public Health. Already UHS has found that 53 percent of Harvard undergraduates think drinking is an effective way to relax, and 70 percent associate getting drunk with celebrating an event.
"We have to do a lot of surveys to find out why people drink," says Rosenthal. "The focus is, why is this considered the norm of behavior and what alternatives to drinking can be found? Ultimately this is how health costs are going to be controlled."
Despite the concomitant vomiting and hangovers, which 48 percent of Harvard students admit they have experienced, binge drinking remains an integral part of many social interactions. "There is a perceived social benefit to drinking," says Gramarossa. "It's linked to sexuality. It's a social lubricant." Huang notes that "alcohol is an accepted phenomenon at parties. If you want to relax, you go get smashed. It's part of the party atmosphere. People hook up more. They use it as a crutch."
Aside from the social benefits, many students are at a loss as to why they drink so much. "People do it just to do it, without knowing why they do it," says Carl, a senior. "Among college students, many people think of drinking as getting drunk. They think of getting smashed or getting trashed. It's to fight stress or to escape from reality, because most people are lonely, and alcohol is a good way to overcome that loneliness. College students by definition are alcoholics. As long as you don't carry it beyond college, it's fine. But a lot of people do have serious problems."
Although other chemicals may pose less of a problem on campus than alcohol, they're around. "I couldn't hand in a paper once because of a bad drug experience," says Kate, another senior. "I called up the TF [teaching fellow] and told him why I couldn't do the paper, and he bought it. I was fucked up for three days. There are certain Houses where drugs are concentrated [she names four of the River Houses]. I think people still don't see alcohol as a drug. There's a certain legitimacy because it's legal." Says Carl, a member of a final club, "There's quite a bit of drugs in final clubs: acid, LSD, 'shrooms. I'd say less than one percent of Harvard students try cocaine. Marijuana is widespread in certain circles, especially artsy people. I had one really bad reaction to marijuana two years ago and didn't try it again for a long time. I had a huge panic attack and had to go to the hospital."
Some students are drawn to psychedelic drugs—especially '"shrooms," a type of edible poison mushroom that causes hallucinations. "I'd like to try 'shrooms," says Sam, a junior. "I'd also be interested in trying LSD, but only in a good setting among friends, not at a party. It's hard to get around here."
Project ADD (Alcohol and Drug Dialogue) director Doug Groncki '95 says, "I see a lot of alcohol around, but not a lot of drugs. I hear stories of LSD and heroin, but I think [students involved with them are] more of a tight-knit group. People should be aware that it's going on, though."
During the week of March 14, Project ADD organized the Harvard-Radcliffe Alcohol and Drug Awareness Week in an effort to reach students who might have substance-abuse problems. At the start of the week a car crash was simulated in Harvard Yard for the benefit of students getting ready to leave on spring break. Films about drugs, alcohol, and rape were shown during the week, and Harvard graduates recovering from alcohol and drug abuse came to speak in public about their experiences. One of them, Sue '87, says that when she was using drugs she couldn't sleep more than three hours before starting to suffer withdrawal. "At Harvard I didn't know what to do, where to go, whom to talk to," she says. "I didn't even know what rehab was. You have to increase awareness on campus. There's a lot of denial from the top down. No one likes to think Harvard students have these problems. You have to let people know there is a solution."
Raising awareness and disseminating information—including counseling options—are probably the most important steps administrators and student support groups are currently taking to address substance-abuse problems. "My biggest concern," says Doug Groncki, "is people who don't perceive drugs and alcohol as a problem for them, who feel they don't have to learn about it. But they don't realize how affected they are by the other people around them, by roommates, family, and friends. It matters. My message for people out there is to get as much information as you possibly can. I'm not telling people to stop drinking or to stop taking drugs, but it's important to be objective and to take a step back. You have to take responsibility for your own actions, for your use or abuse."
Those who must deal with the effects of student binge drinking concur. According to Lt. Charles Schwab of the Harvard Police Department, "Harvard's an education, but it's not all in the classroom. Students have to learn about alcohol." Schwab thinks student alcohol use may be decreasing, though the statistics are not yet conclusive. Between 1990 and 1992, Harvard Police responded to roughly sixty alcohol- or drug-related incidents a year. Last year they responded to only 49, and figures for this year appear to be even lower. Does this drop reflect the University's stricter alcohol policy and a resultant rise in "closet" drinking? Schwab says it's hard to tell.
Because federal grant money is now tied to University enforcement of the drinking age, Harvard toughened its alcohol policy last year. One puzzling consequence was a suspension of the peer counseling that Project ADD had been providing to freshmen. According to Christina Griffith, assistant dean of freshmen, a decision "to put Project ADD on hold until there is a new interpretation of the law" was made jointly by UHS, the Freshmen Dean's Office, and the office of the Dean of the College because of rising concern that student outreach programs might violate state and federal law.
"In terms of next year," says Griffith, "we're trying to figure out how we can do this without getting arrested. We're supposed to assume that freshmen aren't drinking because they're under 21, so proctors can't say to them, 'We know you're drinking; here's how to drink responsibly.'"
In an effort to find alternatives to Project ADD's outreach programs, Gail Gramarossa helped the group organize Alcohol and Drug Awareness Week. "It's a dilemma," she says. "Massachusetts law changed last year, making it more explicitly illegal for someone under the age of 21 to possess alcohol. But the reality is we know freshmen are drinking. The Freshman Dean's Office felt Project ADD might be in violation of the law."
Some students are critical of the decision to suspend Project ADD's alcohol counseling. "It's kind of ridiculous," says Jenny Elkus '96, co-director of Project ADD. "We've always been able to talk about drugs, and they've always been illegal." Room 13's Elena Huang says, "I think Project ADD has every right to be on campus. Drugs and alcohol may not be a raging problem, but it's important to have information." Says Doug Groncki: "This year has been difficult. We didn't know until this fall that we wouldn't be allowed to do outreaches, and we've spent much of the year trying to figure out what else we can do. The Alcohol and Drug Awareness Week was one answer."
Organizing the week may have been Project ADD's only alternative, but no more than a dozen students attended any single event, calling into question the week's effectiveness in reaching the student body. To complicate matters further, murky communications seem to beset a situation in which straightforward information is vital. Even the Ad Board's MacKay-Smith is unclear about the decision to curb Project ADD's outreach efforts. "I'd be interested to find out where this decision came from," she says. "It struck me as curious."
State officials are also bemused by Harvard's interpretation of the law. Jordan St. John, communications director for Governor William Weld, says the suspension of Project ADD's work "sounds very bizarre. You'd think you'd want to have counseling." And Stuart Krusell, chairman of the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, says, "I don't want to second-guess Harvard's counsel, but it's known that underage drinking occurs on college campuses, and the best way of dealing with this is through education. You can bury your head in the sand or address the problem. I could be wrong, but I'm not aware of any provision in the law making it illegal to talk about drugs and alcohol. In fact, I would encourage any education."
Until this legal knot is untangled, Project ADD won't be speaking to freshmen about drugs and alcohol. Yet communication is key. As Carl told me, "For some people, University intervention is crucial. It would help a lot of people to know that there's help to get, and where to get it. I don't."
In the course of writing this column, I dropped by Carl's room to thank him for his comments. His roommate told me that he'd been drinking and was passed out on his bed. The roommate and I looked at each other for a moment, but neither of us knew what to say.