For the past few weeks, the Daily Digest has published an announcement about the University of Connecticut’s Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act which is shared this way biannually. While it includes some information about the risk of using various drugs and the school’s “philosophy” on the matter, the document is mostly an affirmation of the school’s compliance with federal drug laws, as is reflected by our Student Code. In this way, campus and local police enforce the criminalization of a host of substance use and possession for UConn students.
Whatever their opinion about it, this policy isn’t our administration’s design. Colleges around the United States owe this stance on mind-altering substances to Congress’ 1989 Drug Free Campus and Communities Act, which mandates universities to administer policy symmetric with federal drug laws. School enforcement of these laws has become tied to university funding from the Department of Education and fines in cases of noncompliance. As a result of this, drug policy at most American universities mirrors drug policy nationally.
Drug policy in the United States has deep and fundamental ties to white supremacy and social control in general. Launching the “War on Drugs” in 1971, Richard Nixon empowered and expanded federal drug control agencies, increased funding and weapons of police forces and generally doubled-down on the criminalization of drug users of all kinds — other than alcohol, cigarettes and prescription opioids of course. Former Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman is famously quoted saying the administration “knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act inherits this legacy and is equally unrelated to helping those struggling with abuse. A “drug free” policy of any kind ignores the reality that drugs — including alcohol in the United States — can be integral to many cultures, that criminalization and incarceration have always been tools for identity-based violence and most importantly that people addicted to drugs are not deterred by the threat of punishment. Then again, as stated in the 2021 DFSCA, perhaps helping those struggling with substance abuse is secondary to “The University’s principal role [which] is to engage in education that leads to high standards, respectful conduct and a healthy, productive environment … when those are compromised, the University will take disciplinary action against organizations and individuals violating The Student Code.”
Treatment available for those struggling with addiction at UConn is limited in some ways. The UConn Recovery Community offers important student care and resources to continue life here in supportive environments free from drugs and alcohol, and Student Health and Wellness offers important screening and intervention resources. But professional treatment is still neither free nor on-demand; it is not in unlimited supply, and the same stigma and criminalization that drives sick people away from seeking help exists at UConn as it does in every similar environment.
Furthermore, there are many barriers to recovery that have nothing to do with the accessibility of treatment. Simply put, a miserable life is one of the greatest barriers to overcoming addictions, and widespread among college students are food and housing insecurity, poverty, social isolation, sexual violence and mental health concerns in general. At UConn, the worst of these unaddressed problems have literally deadly consequences.
Whether it’s about care accessibility or another concern of quality of life for those who may be struggling, we’re discussing a question of limited funding and resources which every administrative body must decide where to allocate. This is why, if governments including the UConn administration are concerned firstly with helping those struggling with substance abuse, they will redirect all resources currently used for the criminalization and punishment of users toward free, on-demand, no-questions-asked treatment in cases of abuse or addiction.
The great expenditure on this criminalization is most obvious within the UConn Police Department who makes arrests on campus and confers those who violate laws to local and state legal systems. As noted by the community movement Defund UCPD, in 2019 UCPD spent $121,021 per crime, 78% of which were instances of drug and alcohol conduct. If 78% percent of UCPD’s $18,000,000 budget were redirected into treatment, education and other community institutions rather than policing, how many more therapists and counselors could UConn afford? How many people could be saved from addiction?
Even if criminal charges for substance use or possession as a college student are limited to a fine or a mark on one’s record, these add up. Their greatest effect in the case of those struggling with addiction is decreasing the individual’s access to treatment. In general, the main outcome of charges or penalties for the use of drugs is a nuisance or worse, preventing people from leading comfortable lives and independently developing a healthy relationship with mind-altering substances. There is nothing that helps the community in general.
We need to hold the UConn administration accountable for the harmful misallocation of resources to institutions focused on criminalizing members of our community from ones which save lives. We need to consider the humanity of those struggling with substance abuse. We need to develop well-funded treatment avenues which aren’t means-tested or linked to insurance but available to all community members. Most importantly, we need to decriminalize drug use and possession, and begin treatment of drug addiction as a mental health illness.