In April, a dramatic drug bust at the College led to the arrest of two Currier
House students. Harvard University police officers with a search warrant
entered the room of two senior men and confiscated drugs and a computer.
The two had allegedly been distributing drugs, including "ecstasy,"
LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and marijuana in several areas across the
campus. Other students, including at least one woman with no history of
drug use prior to her enrollment at the College, were allegedly involved
in the distribution.
Although the quantities of narcotics in this case, according to Harvard's
police chief of six months, Francis D. "Bud" Riley, M.P.A. '90,
were "not the level of distribution that our district attorney's office
would be interested in investigating," Riley nevertheless called the
incident "significant for this community." He pointed out that
the role of the University police is to enforce community norms as well
as College rules and policies. In this instance, he says, "There were
several students who registered concern for the well-being of fellow students
because of their use of narcotics directly related to these people who were
The case has raised a number of issues for the Harvard community. One is
that of drug use, which is perceived to be on the upswing. Another is the
precise role of the University police. Some students recall being told that
getting into trouble with the campus police was better than tangling with
the Cambridge police. But "when you commit a felony [as in the Currier
House case], you've crossed the line," says dean of students Archie
Epps. "This is not a safe haven from violation of the law."
The University has handled this case in a way consistent with previous incidents,
according to Epps. "We just don't see the Currier kind of case very
often," he says. "There were cases like that earlier, in the sixties
and seventies." On the other hand, perceptions about what is acceptable
behavior may be changing. "There was a period," says Epps, "when
the use of marijuana was thought to be a cause for getting help, but it
has always been the case that trafficking or distribution...would lead to
separation from the College." "Nowadays," he stresses, "even
use may cross that line."
Given that drug use among high-school students is on the rise, college campuses
nationwide can reasonably expect to experience a similar increase, according
to Dr. David Rosenthal '59, director of University Health Services (UHS).
Rosenthal notes that drug and alcohol abuse at Harvard College follows very
closely the trends that appear in relevant national studies (see table).
Although no published longitudinal studies on the subject deal exclusively
with Harvard, a 1993 study conducted by Henry Wechsler, lecturer in health
and social behavior at the School of Public Health, found that 15 percent
of Harvard undergraduates (more than 1 in 7) had used marijuana or hashish
in the 30 days prior to the study, compared to a national rate of 14 percent.
Says Wechsler, "All signs suggest that we're in for an epidemic."
Nevertheless, when asked about substance abuse at Harvard, researchers,
health officials, deans, and police all point to alcohol as a problem far
more serious than any other. A national study conducted by Wechsler and
others clearly links "binge drinking" to "a variety of alcohol-related
health, social, and academic problems" (see "The Booze News,"
March-April 1995, page 20). Wechsler's study, which defines binge drinking
as five or more drinks at one time, one or more times over a two-week period
for men (four drinks within the same time frame for women), showed that
bingers were two to four times more likely than nonbingers to have a hangover,
do something they regretted later, miss a class, forget where they were
or what they did, get behind in school work, argue with friends, engage
in unplanned sexual activity, have unprotected sex, get hurt or injured,
damage property, or get into trouble with campus or local police. Harvard
police chief Riley confirms that "alcohol is our number one problem
here. Almost invariably, when someone gets in trouble or someone gets in
an accident it's tied to alcohol or drugs. Most of the time, it's alcohol."
Nationally, the rate of binge drinking varies greatly among U.S. colleges,
from a low of 1 percent of the student population (at denominational institutions)
to a high of 70 percent (at north-central and eastern colleges with high
student participation in athletics and in fraternities and sororities).
Harvard falls somewhere in the middle. In 1993, for example, 41 percent
of Harvard students were classified as binge drinkers, a rate slightly lower
than the 47 percent rate for other large private colleges. Wechsler's study
revealed that the rate of binge drinking is lower among minorities, married
people, students attending college on the West Coast, and women.
Attempts to curb alcohol abuse are rarely effective unless students believe
drinking can harm them-which is why, since becoming dean of the College
in 1995, Harry Lewis '68 has been trying to raise awareness among students
about the dangers of drinking to excess. Studies have shown that student
perceptions about the dangers of drug abuse do mitigate their use of narcotics
(and led to the Currier House bust), but alcohol is rarely considered a
drug, and overindulgence is widely tolerated. This despite the fact that
"most cases of violence, sexual misconduct, and the like are associated
with alcohol abuse," says Lewis.
The dean has borrowed an effective tactic, first suggested in Henry Wechsler's
study, from recent antismoking campaigns that have focused on the dangers
of secondhand exposure. In a letter to students last fall, Lewis pointed
out that those who drink to excess endanger their own health and well being,
and also the health and well-being of others. "Part of our education
effort," he says, "is to make roommates understand that they do
not have to put up with repeated disturbances or illegal behaviors in their
rooms." "Overconsumption of alcohol," he reminds students,
"is a violation of College rules that can result in serious disciplinary
action," including cancellation of the offender's rooming contract.
Chief Riley, who doesn't drink himself, says he has no problems enforcing
the policy established by the dean, but adds, "That does not mean that
I'm going to have my officers hiding in the bushes, waiting for someone
to come by with a six-pack." Riley's children drink, he says, and "I
will make the same accommodations for the students here that I would make
for my own kids." His options for dealing with problem students range
from "helping them out of a jam" to "using administrative
action to be a lever." Says Riley, "I'm a firm believer that people
who have a problem need some incentive to fix the problem." If the
experts' predictions are accurate, Riley may have his work cut out for him.