A survey of drug use on campus

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.

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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.

‘Drug Nerds’

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.”


  • alum

    Great article. You do the YDN proud!

  • Anonymous

    If you think you might have a problem with alcohol or drugs, there are regular AA meetings on campus every morning at 7:30-8:30 a.m. Mon-Fri at Dwight Hall and 8:00-9:00 a.m. Sat-Sun at Yale Health Services.

    The meetings are very welcoming, and you can come and listen without having to commit to anything. The regular group includes students, professors, and community members, and the conversations are lively, smart, and, often, humorous. The group is as mixed in race, economic status, and sexual orientation as any you will find in New Haven. Although the organization is "Alcoholics Anonymous," you are welcome to be part of the group if you are having a problem with a drug other than alcohol.

    I was someone who had a very successful college and professional career while also carrying on an impressive career as a heavy drinker. Eventually the drinking overtook everything else, and I had to quit.

    It took me years to come to AA because I had the mistaken notion that I would have a religious message rammed down my throat and that I would be surrounded by a bunch of grim old men. I can tell you that as an agnostic woman, who isn't grim at all, I've found a great hidden community here on campus.

  • Recent Alum

    This piece is a bit one-sided for such a controversial topic. Was there really not a single person available to make an anti-drug comment (even while acknowledging that it is a minority position at Yale)?

  • ac

    This is probably the most interesting article I've read from the YDN. Great job.

  • Anonymous

    LSD is not an amphetamine…

  • for serious…

    seriously?! could you not have found a few sane yalies who aren't blind to the REAL consequences of drug use?

  • anon

    LSD is in no way an amphetamine. Come on guys.

  • straightedge

    See, I actually think there are MANY more drug users (mostly alcohol and marijuana) than answered the survey. Don't you think there is a positive correlation between people who would respond to the survey and people who don't take drugs? I suggest sending the survey to every undergraduate, if possible, and placing a higher premium on responding. Then, you will get a more realistic distribution of results, obviously.

    And isn't it assumed that the obvious position is anti-drug? They're illegal? I think it's much more compelling to write about the fact that people don't think they're a big deal…it's understood that nobody is supposed to do them. That's boring to hear about, and it would only progress the ignorance as to what college is really like. And Yale (and other ivies) is pretty tame.

  • eli

    smoke weed!

  • Anonymous

    We know what anti-drug Yalies would say… that would just make the article boring… this is a YDN article that prevents falling into that trap.

  • Anonymous

    Very enlightening article. Who would have known that drug use at an Ivy League school is no different from drug use anywhere else?

  • GeorgeJung


  • "Sue"

    Damnit, I never said acid was an amphetamine!

  • abstainer

    I really like the claim that drugs make these smart people even smarter. I've had enough conversations with people who were using stoner logic to know that that is absolutely a false notion.

    Aside from the obvious pitfall of addiction (and no, you are not immune from this if you just take your drugs on the weekends), these drugs damage your bodies in numerous ways. Acid stays in your body forever, and you can have flashbacks at any time. It also harms your reproductive DNA. So if you want to have kids as "smart" as you, stay away.

    The categories of drug nerds and mind-expansionists were used to describe these students. I'd like to add another one: people with emotional problems who are trying to escape through drug use. That's basically what the drinkers are doing too. Just don't make it seem like the drug users are otherwise well adjusted and normal. What nonsense.

  • Anonymous

    I believe that there is a drug problem at Yale as with any other institution. Perhaps it is just a subgroup. I would like to know if other uncommon drugs, specifically poppy seed tea, have been discovered to be used at Yale?

  • Teetotaled

    So much great music came from musicians zooted on coke… whatever you do,don't take tylenol for your hangover,something about Acetaminophen with alcohol that will tear at your innards like shots of acetic acid,The Pancreas will plead for mercy. Drinking water between drinks will help tremendously

  • almost

    this is almost a really good article, though it seems the author fell into the stoner logic here. NONE of the repercussions of taking drugs were mentioned, and minimal non-users were interviewed.

    This article is quite meta actually, because it seems to be written with the same logic as the people it's writing about. I feel like I'm on something as I read it, actually.

  • to abstainer

    Your statement about "acid flashbacks" is correct. Your statement about LSD negatively affecting your reproductive DNA have been disproven again and again (See "LSD and Genetic Damage" Norman I. Dishotsky, William D. Loughman, Robert E. Mogar , and Wendell R. Lipscomb;
    or for a newer study See: "Human hallucinogen research: guidelines for safety." M. Johnson, W. Richards, and R. Griffiths (2008)J Psychopharmacol 22, 603-620).

    You are basing your "facts" off of studies done in the 70s. They were highly uncontrolled. The fact is, most researchers will acknowledge that they don't know enough about LSD or any psychedelic drug (note: I said Psychedelic drug, not cocaine, heroin, etc. Grouping all these drugs together would be like saying every presciption drug is the same… there are different mechanisms and effects). In fact, 1972 and 1990 there were ZERO FDA approved studies on psychedelic drug use. Luckily, over the past 2 years, the FDA has begun approving research into this area so that we can begin exploring what these drugs do on a molecular level and on a clinical level (see: Safety, Tolerability and efficacy on Psilocybin in the Journal of Clinical psychiatry, F.A. Moreno). Now scientists can tell you that LSD is an agonist for serotonin 2A receptors, and causes the downregulation of these receptors; this is much more useful and valid than saying "LSD puts holes in your brain", which is a story we tell 12 year olds to get them away from drugs.

    Since you are clearly not the expert you would ask us to believe you are, and since you basing your purported knowledge on studies that have been disproven over and over again (as early as 1971, I might add), I'd like you to reconsider your factual sources. There is a lot more scientific literature that asks us to reconsider the benefits of these drugs in controlled settings than you would think.

  • jane

    For anyone wanting help, please visit http://www.mountainside.org