Opinion: Drugs on college campuses aren’t so dope after all

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If you walk into most college students’ living rooms in Boulder, it’s almost inevitable you will see a bong. Our young culture has created social norms that define which drugs are celebrated and which drugs are shunned. The problem is that they all have negative health implications and our widening boundaries around which drugs are acceptable only perpetuates drugs abuse on college campuses.

Which drugs are deemed acceptable is determined by your social environment. Humans adopt the behaviors of society by recognizing the patterns of cultural norms. This process, also called the socialization process, begins in infancy and continues thought out life. 

Due to the overwhelming use of drugs on college campuses, young adults are socialized to think certain drugs are “OK” whereas others are stigmatized as “dangerous.” However, all drugs can be harmful and potentially life-threatening. Drugs are embedded in college culture, leading to premature exposure to them, thus raising a student’s susceptibility for addiction. That fact is exemplified by the 300 percent increase of opiate use among college students since the `90s.

There is an undeniable population of drug users and an inexcusable population turning a blind eye to their peers’ destructive behavior. This is because certain drugs are celebrated by some and dismissed by others.

Adderall is widely abused on campus because it’s a “study drug.” Drugs in this category are medically approved stimulants to treat ADHD, and the most commonly abused are Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse. It’s accepted as a necessary tool for surviving the overwhelming pressures of school. Despite Adderall being a prescribed medication, college students aren’t scared of the potential side-effects — dizziness, irregular heart rate, appetite loss — because “everyone does it.”

As a kid, you learn about saying no to peer pressure, but what happens if you don’t say anything? College students aren’t speaking up about the risks of abusing study drugs because it goes against the norms of the college environment.

In a study by the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, scientists tracked Adderall mentions on Twitter throughout 2013, discovering 200,000 tweets mentioning the drug. Mentions rose during exam periods. The study also discovered that the highest concentration of tweets came from the regions of the U.S. hosting the most strenuous schools. College has created an atmosphere where students have bragging rights for taking Adderall and studying all night, but disregard when their peers are prepared and actually do their work on time.

The competitive nature of college and the fears of the unstable job markets creates a climate in which students encourage one another to take this drug to get an edge. It allows students to study for countless hours without stopping because an influx of dopamine from the drug triggers euphoria. That’s also why it can become so addicting and why students can rely heavily on using study drugs to do well in school.

But, unlike study drugs, students are abusing hard drugs that impact their coherence. There is a desire to use these drugs in celebration, and our culture deems that okay because it’s seen as only occasional use. The classification of drugs as being “hard drugs” goes hand-in-hand with the cultural compartmentalization of which drugs are acceptable and which are off-limits. Many college students assume that hard drugs are cocaine, molly, ecstasy and acid. However, most students don’t know what drugs definitively qualify as “hard drugs.” The assumption that some drugs are okay and some aren’t is personal in the same way that students consider certain drugs “hard” because of their perceived danger.

The shift of drugs from being marked “illegal” to “medicinal,” as a result of new legislation, has changed the way we were perceive drugs. Most students at CU whom I know don’t seem to consider marijuana a drug anymore — “It’s just weed,” we hear. This overemphasis of the legality of marijuana in Colorado has given people in other regions of the country reason to believe everyone in Colorado smokes weed or that we can all buy marijuana from a vending machine — I’ve been asked.

The celebration of this drug is rooted in the fact that weed has roots (it’s a natural drug) and new legislation has made it legal in some circumstances. Despite the therapeutic merits of marijuana, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports there are still possible side effects, including breathing problems, increased heart rate and mental problems.

While not as commonly used as marijuana, Xanax has infested the party atmosphere in college. The use of tranquilizing drugs, such as Xanax or Valium, is four times greater among students now than in the mid-1990s. The risks are often ignored, especially when 3.07 per 100,000 adults die from Xanax overdose. There’s a culture surrounding Xanax built upon maximizing alcohol’s effects and getting to a state of complete incoherence. College students know people are overdosing on this drug, but it’s still celebrated as a way to get to the perfect “party buzz,” or even further.

Drug addicts can’t be stigmatized as college dropouts anymore; many are functioning college students. Some look like students trying to be fierce in the academic field. Others are just trying to release stress after a long day by getting high. Some just want to party in a state of mind that can’t be reached without the use of drugs. Over 20 percent of full-time college students aged 18 to 22 regularly use illegal drugs. However, the concept “regular,” like “normal,” is not a fixed concept, so an exact measure of college drug abuse is yet to be seen. Students reflecting on their drug use may not consider their behavior to be problematic or consistent enough to even be considered “drug use” and therefore may not report on it. Because in a college environment, drugs are so widely accepted and normalized, students may not even recognize their drug use as consistent drug use.

But why do college students celebrate any drug use? We should celebrate the use of prescription drugs for the treatment of diseases, not the illegal black market sales of others’ medication. While college is a place to be educated, students have not learned one simple lesson: even if everyone is doing it, it’s not always okay.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Carlisle Olsen at Carlisle.Olsen@colorado.edu.

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