The Admissions Office viewbook contains many images of Yale: students studying in the Bass Library, lounging on Old Campus and performing with a cappella and dance groups. Yet absent from the ivy-strewn pictorials are images of grungy off-campus parties and the Saturday night lines outside Toad’s Place. There are no images of students partying, drinking or — heaven forbid — doing drugs.
But just as alcohol-fueled pregames and crowded frat parties flavor some students’ Yale experience, so too do alternative and mainstream drugs shape the experience of some subgroups of Yale’s undergraduate population — though no more or no less than at the average university, a News survey has found.
In a poll sent last week to 600 undergraduates, 35 percent of the 300 respondents said they have used drugs while at Yale. That puts the Yale student body’s drug use almost exactly on par with the average at other schools: 36.6 percent of undergraduates nationwide said in 2005 that they had used an illicit drug at least once in the previous year, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Meanwhile, 47 percent of respondents to the News poll indicated that, even if they themselves do not use drugs, they know more than 10 Elis who do.
In the wake of the University’s decision in September to create Yale’s first-ever director of alcohol and substance abuse initiatives, a new Dean’s Office post the University is trying to fill by next fall, it seems an apt time to explore an activity that remains largely hidden at Yale: drug use. In extensive interviews with seven Yale students concerning their experiences using drugs at Yale, it became clear that hard drug use tends to be concentrated in certain social groups on campus — which themselves cannot be stereotyped or categorized, but rather are defined by their reasons for using drugs.
Alcohol vs. Drugs
One point of agreement among students interviewed — whose names have been changed to protect their privacy — was the clear rejection of the social perception that drugs are morally wrong.
Sam, a senior in Jonathan Edwards College, said that although he feels Yale and society at large assign a moral judgement to marijuana use because it is illegal, he himself does not subscribe to the doctrine that just because something is illegal, it is therefore morally wrong.
In a similar vein, Sue, a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College, said she is constantly surprised when people who look down on harder drugs take prescription medication.
“There is this culture of, ‘Oh, you do Adderall, you’re normal. Oh, you do acid, that’s scary!’ ” she said, “when they are both amphetamines.”
John, a senior in Jonathan Edwards College, added that drug use is not “sanctioned” at Yale the same way that alcohol use is and that for that reason, students at Yale abuse alcohol to a much greater extent than they do illicit drugs. (Indeed, last year, the University twice took disciplinary action against students for drug law violations, compared to 74 times for liquor violations, according to U.S. Department of Education records.)
James Perlotto ’78, chief of student medicine for Yale University Health Services, and Marie Baker, a YUHS clinical psychologist and substance abuse counselor, said in interviews that alcohol is by far the most common drug used and abused by students here. Of the respondents to the News poll, 3 in 4 students said they have imbibed alcohol at least once while at Yale.
The seven students interviewed said they found the perceived double standard especially ironic, given the significant harm that alcohol can do.
John, in particular, said that a sort of “why bother” attitude persists on campus due to the school’s pseudo sanctioning of alcohol use and the ease with which alcohol can be obtained.
“But alcohol can really mess you up,” he said.
Underground ‘Social’ Network
One of the reasons that drugs may be less prevalent than alcohol on campus is that they are simply harder to find, John said. While alcohol is relatively easy to acquire, when it comes to drugs, he said, one must “know the right people.”
Indeed, the seven students interviewed said their social circles were integral to the development and support of their drug use.
Those supply chains and activities, in turn, reinforce existing social groups since they also function as a shared interest, many of the students said.
However, despite the fact that New Haven is an urban area, all the students interviewed said that the drug market in the surrounding area leaves much to be desired. Sue, who said she experimented with drugs while living in New Haven over the summer, found that the minute students arrived on campus for the fall semester, demand for drugs went up — and so did prices.
As a result of the high prices, she said, the only Yale students who buy drugs from townies during the school year are “rich frat boys.”
Recently, a sophomore in Morse College who is also a Yale fraternity brother familiar with the use of drugs in Greek life said that, while last year cocaine use in his frat had been confined to a small group of seniors, this year, a number of brothers from several fraternities began using cocaine recreationally on the weekends as part of their Toad’s pregame.
Even several freshmen new to Yale’s social scene said in interviews that they understand the need for social connections to obtain drugs.
One freshman in Ezra Stiles College, Fred, who described himself as “overly social,” said that because his acquaintances span class years and residential colleges, he has access to a wide array of possible suppliers.
Fred also said he is not surprised that other Yalies use drugs.
“You have a lot of smart people in one place,” he said of Yale. “Of course there are drugs.”
But even those in the know are not always able acquire what they want.
Recently, John said, “everyone is looking for LSD.” But, he said, nobody seems to know anyone who has any.
Enhancing Mental Performance
Though the students interviewed had similar ways of acquiring drugs, their reasons for using differed. For John, experimenting with drugs such as ecstasy and acid allowed him to think about advanced mathematical theories from an entirely different perspective, as he explained it. He said he was profoundly affected when a professor he once had at Yale attributed his mathematical brilliance to the fact that he did “nothing but acid” in the ’60s.
John suggested a correlation between being a successful mathematician and using drugs. For instance, he pointed out, the late Paul Erdos, an eccentric and renowned Hungarian mathematician, regularly used amphetamines.
As the story goes, Erdos’ addiction got to such a state that his friend famously bet him that he could not stop taking amphetamines for a month. After Erdos won the bet, he said that because he had not used drugs for a month, his research had stagnated.
“Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas,” Erdos said of his mental state on amphetamines. “Now, I get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person.”
Sam similarly finds that it is the mind-expanding properties of marijuana that draw him to the drug. Indeed, it has been while high that Sam said he has gotten some of his best senior thesis ideas and that it has been while high that he has done his most creative graphic design work.
He added that he has found marijuana allows him to think in different ways and be conscious of things he did not think he would be otherwise.
On the other hand, Sue said it is a combination of understanding and experiencing the biological effects of experimental drugs that most interests her.
“There are druggies and there are drug nerds,” Sue said. “Drug nerds know the science behind them, know the way it affects the individual’s biochemistry. They are smarter about their use.”
Sue described her first night doing drugs — a summer night in New Haven — as a regular evening. She said that she understood what she was about to do very clearly before she took the plunge.
Within her circle of friends, Sue said that drugs are always done under safe circumstances. For instance, they consider frat parties and Toad’s Place as not fit for their kind of use. Sue further explained that she believes there is a sort of implicit “druggie code” at Yale that nobody she knows breaks: Nobody gives anyone anything without first telling him or her what it is and educating him or her about it.
In particular, Sue said that the first time anyone ever does a drug, he or she should have complete information about its effects. First-time users, she added, should never take a high dose, and they should be with people who have done the drug before.
Fred, who also refers to himself as a drug nerd, said that the appeal of acid is its ability to show a person life from a completely different perspective. Having one’s reality shattered in this way, he said, is “consciousness-expanding.”
“It’s like seeing the world from the top of a mountain, except, instead of walking it, you took the ski lift,” he said, quoting Aldous Huxley, informally considered to be the “spiritual father” of the hippie movement.
‘Don’t ask, Don’t Tell’
Indeed, despite their belief that drug use is looked down on by society at large, students interviewed who do not use drugs said they believe Yale to have a fairly permissive campus — one that doesn’t pass judgment on drug users.
“There’s not a lot of space for people to be judgmental about more serious drugs,” community health educator Elizabeth Deutsch ’11 said, adding that she does not personally know many people who use drugs other than alcohol and marijuana. “I feel there just isn’t that much [abuse] to be judgmental about.”
Should a student run into trouble or feel that he or she is approaching that point, campus resources abound, Perlotto said, adding that there are many options available at YUHS for students who are concerned about substance abuse.
“They will find that we are very non-judgmental, very understanding and very committed to helping students,” he said.
Walden Peer Counseling, a student-run group, offers a nightly support line for students dealing with personal issues, including substance use issues. Students dealing with substance use issues can also attend the Narcotics Anonymous meetings held at St. Paul’s Church on Chapel Street, Baker said.
But these seven students said they feel they are in control. They call it substance use, not abuse. They said they have come to fit their drug use into their lives at Yale, though what role drugs will play, if any, in their post graduate lives remains unclear.
Sam said that although he has heard from friends who went to work in banking or consulting of bosses or supervisors using drugs with subordinates, he cannot fully imagine what that would be like.
“When do you stop?” he asked. “When you have kids, a family? Do you? I don’t know.”