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The North Carolina College Drug Ring Bust Reminds Us Our Greatest Weapon in the Drug War Is Honesty

Joe Schrank wrote an educational blog about drug policy on college campuses. The greatest weapon in the drug war is honesty.

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Last week the University of North Carolina, Duke, and Appalachian State scandal brought into sharp relief the inherent dishonesty of drug policy in one of our most important institutions, the university.

Americans love drugs. There, I said it. While we feign shock and horror at the suggestion of drug use, the truth is we consume more drugs than any other nation. We clutch our collective pearls and make examples of people by flag-waving but this is an ineffective policy and serves nobody… not the community, the family, or the individual. 

We’ve had decades of the war on drugs. A trillion dollars have been spent. Families have been decimated. Prisons are making a profit from putting largely black and brown young men in cages.  However, there is no meaningful or measurable change in drug use in America. If anything, it’s growing. The pandemic’s isolation, despair, and financial insecurity fanned the flame of smoldering mental health issues and we don’t really know what it will all mean until American emerges from its long hunker down. What we do know is drug use is many things, but what it’s not is a crime. Or it shouldn’t be.

Last week the University of North Carolina, Duke, and Appalachian State scandal brought into sharp relief the inherent dishonesty of drug policy in one of our most important institutions, the university. Steeped in erroneous rhetoric and perceived morality, college campuses have become clandestine parties or binge drinking ritualization. There are 1800 college kids a year who die as a result of this largely unexamined culture. While saying “no to drugs” limits liability and makes parents happier, it does nothing to address the problem in real terms. America is like a giant dysfunctional family ignoring the elephant in the room pretending that this time, it’ll be better. At the top of the list of those responsible are university presidents, looking to limit exposure and keep donations flowing.

 Be it for an individual, a family, a town, a university or a country, all drug policy is successful to the degree to which we will be honest about it. So what would genuinely help this situation? 

Stop denying young people’s drug use

Young people like freedom. They are trying on hats, excited to be away from home without pesky parents implementing curfews. This isn’t a crime. It’s human development. With this period of experimentation, for many, comes drug use. There is a moral imperative for us to prioritize safety. 

Zero tolerance drug policy only creates secrecy and shame and forces parties into a world with neither floor or ceiling… just a free-floating amorphous blog of chaos. What would be the big sin if campuses sanctioned parties with a safety net and guard rails? 

We all love the idea of drug-free college kids but we also love the idea of Santa. At some point, fantasy cannot prevail. It’s a form of denial, and it helps nothing and nobody. 

Alcohol is the most dangerous drug on campus

Alcohol is a deadly toxin. It kills more than all street drugs combined. However, we think of it more as a wholesome Chevy commercial than an insidious killer. 

It’s not just the alcohol. It’s what happens when alcohol is added: poor academic performance, a rise in violence, in sexual assaults, and in accidents. 

America just isn’t ready for this fact that by any metric, cannabis is a safer form of intoxication. There are zero deaths by lethal ingestion. The behaviors around its use are not remotely as risky and rife with pitfalls as alcohol or hard drugs. Think of it this way: four drunk boys will start a fight. Four stoned boys will start a band (or at least talk about starting a band). 

Support goes further than zero-tolerance

The time has come to lead with honesty and the unyielding paradigm of safety first. Allowing for beer and cannabis on college campuses would dramatically reduce the rates of “incidents” on campus. Good Samaritan policy as in “Hey kids, you won’t get in trouble. Call for help at the first sign you are uncomfortable.” should be national policy. We need real drug education, including how to stay safe. 

We need comprehensive and integrated mental health screenings and services on campus. I’m not talking about an obscure counseling office somewhere, but proactive mental health screenings. Students have to verify inoculations and basic physicals. They should have to do the same for mental health. We must provide vital recovery community options. If you build it, they will come. 

Last week, 21 young people were arrested in a multi-campus ring of drug sales. Yes, they broke the law. Yes, it should be dealt with. Are these young people criminals? More than likely, they are dumbasses, which isn’t a crime. Who among us can claim perfect decision-making, especially in that phase of collegiate life? One of the great ironies of this is that much of what was unleashed on the campuses was cannabis. Selling cannabis makes the campuses safer than if they were selling margaritas.

Colleges are supposed to be a bastion of new ideas and progressive thought. Gay kids, trans kids, black kids, all deserve an environment of respect, safety, and equality. Here’s the shocking part: so do drug users. The health implications of drug use are a different matter but the decision to use or not use shouldn’t be addressed by jurisprudence or shame. 

Duke, Appalachian State, and the University of North Carolina are all complicit in the challenges now faced by these young lives. In real terms, how much will these campuses see a reduction of drug use as a result of this? Zero. Nothing. No change. There will be no change in issues with drug use.

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Joe Schrank is a 23 years sober, a social worker, interventionist, sober companion, founder of and the former owner of a rehab and sober living. He cohosts the “Rehab Confidential” podcast with author Amy Dresner where they interview politicans, scientists, doctors and celebrities. You can reach him at

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