It was Wednesday night and while a strong contingent of Yalies attended Woads, I decided to try out the alternative — Wine, Weed and Wenzels Wednesdays, lovingly known as WWWW (pronounced “wa wa wa wa”). Laughter could be heard from inside the off-campus apartment where WWWW was being held. Nobody noticed the knock on the door over the sounds of music and voices until the third try. Finally, the door opened to a friendly face and the pervasive scent of weed.
Looking around the room, I could see where the name came from. Solo cups filled with Franzia Merlot were strewn across tables; plumes of smoke billowed from students’ mouths, their eyes red and glazed over.
At one point during the evening, a girl motioned to a bong and tentatively asked another, “Is that your weed?” The other girl passed the bong over declaring: “This is a family of sharing.” Conversation floated like the smoky air. Smiling people passed in and out of the haze as the night wore on. They caressed, hugged, laughed and sang. To complete the night, the final W arrived with a 2 a.m. Wenzel run.
Recreational marijuana user Ricky,* who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of legal concerns, had invited me to this longstanding off-campus get-together. He explained that WWWW was created as an alternative to Woads, a prescribed relaxation time and a context in which people can get to know one another. A “pot”luck of sorts, he calls it, where people bring what they can and don’t pay attention to work.
Ricky emphasized the importance of getting high in fostering such relaxed moments. While high, friends are willing to accompany him on tangents. Emphasizing the liberation and revelations he feels while high, Ricky said, “I think sometimes people at Yale get so wrapped up into complaining about work and stuff that it’s nice to have those moments of sensory appreciation. You will listen to a song that you’ve listened to a million times and this time you’ll really hear it and love it in a way you hadn’t.”
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Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway doesn’t share Ricky’s positive feelings about these illicit, off-campus events. “I do know that there are smaller communities of Yale students who live on and off campus who smoke marijuana often,” he said over email. “Aside from engaging in illegal activity, they are a serious social irritant and seem not to care about how they are negatively affecting the quality of life for the people who live around them. In this way they demonstrate an abiding insensitivity to others.”
While Holloway strictly characterizes marijuana use as an illegal activity, Connecticut state law presents a fuzzier picture.
Since 2011, Connecticut is one of 19 states to have decriminalized marijuana possession, meaning that possession of small quantities does not warrant jail time. Decriminalization is not synonymous with legalization. Possession of small quantities of marijuana warrants a small fine; additionally, medical marijuana is legal in Connecticut for treatment of specified illnesses. Though they have not by any means approved a full-fledged legalization, Connecticut legislators have softened what was once a harsher restriction on cannabis.
Less than three weeks ago, the sixth medical marijuana dispensary opened in the state of Connecticut. According to a recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, 90 percent of Connecticut voters approve of legalized medical marijuana and 52 percent of voters support legalizing recreational marijuana.
Wallace* began selling edibles his freshman year in the form of “high-quality” brownies. A baking enthusiast, he learned how to make edibles during his junior year of high school. He acquired a reputation as a prominent dealer on Yale’s campus but was caught and faced the Executive Committee. Since then, he has ceased producing and selling edibles.
Laughing at his notoriety on campus, Wallace said, “Contrary to common belief, I didn’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m gonna start a drug empire on a college campus.’”
When Wallace came to Yale, he realized marijuana was not always readily available and that he needed to find his own supplier. Almost every other week, his dealer would roll up to an agreed-upon location on a black bike, provide him with the product and speed away, usually without saying a word.
At first, Wallace made edibles in his residential college kitchen since he didn’t have the utensils to do it on his own. One day an operations manager walked in on him. Although the operations manager didn’t figure out that Wallace was using Yale equipment to make an illegal drug, the experience convinced Wallace that he needed to be more discreet. After that, Wallace started cooking on a hot plate in the early-morning hours in his dorm room so that the smell wouldn’t bother his suitemates.
At first, the edibles were just meant for himself, but oftentimes he made too many leftovers and invited friends to join him in eating them. Eventually, friends-of-friends began texting and asking for marijuana. Shortly thereafter, a steady flow of people was paying for the product.
He started enjoying it, delivering a product that students wanted.
To better market his product, Wallace explained, “I made cute packages with green wrapping paper and a red bow.”
His clientele swelled. People outside of his residential college, upperclassmen, fraternities and large sports teams started buying from him. He realized that in a single night he could walk into a party with a backpack full of “merchandise” and leave with a wallet filled with almost $500. He sent most of the money he made to his mother to help her pay the bills.
Then, everything changed. Wallace didn’t give a second thought to providing a friend with some edibles late one night around spring break. The next morning, he awoke to a text from a friend telling him they needed to talk about a serious incident.
A girl, whom Wallace had never met, had eaten one of his brownies while excessively intoxicated. Afterward, she needed to be brought to Yale Health by some friends and later went to Yale–New Haven. Wallace’s friend informed him that the administration was searching for whomever had baked the edibles.
Wallace came forward and has since quit selling edibles. He chose not to comment on the disciplinary process he went through because he was told not to by the Executive Committee.
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“I can get weed here faster than I can get a pizza delivered — less than ten minutes,” recreational user Joseph* bragged to me when I spoke with him.
But for other students, finding marijuana isn’t so easy.
Sophomore year, Annabelle* and her friends wanted to get high for Safety Dance. Sending out a slew of texts to friends, they discovered no one they knew had any marijuana available. So they started texting friends of friends. Many of the reputed stoners on campus looked at the screens of their phones to find a surprising message.
“Hi, this is Annabelle, I’m friends with Tommy*. I know this is awk, but do you have any weed????????”
After dozens of text exchanges, they finally obtained some marijuana, though it was by no means easy, Annabelle said.
The occurrence isn’t abnormal at Yale. Many students interviewed voiced the same sentiment — that although marijuana is not as common or as accessible as alcohol, the drug is not absent from campus culture. But at the same time, it does have to be actively sought out.
According to a Yale Daily News Survey administered to 42 students, 100 percent of Yale students surveyed said they have had alcohol while underage compared to only 50 percent of students who have tried marijuana at least once. Ricky believes this difference of usage contributes to a stigma against marijuana on campus.
Survey results demonstrated that while the drug’s usage is distributed among a variety of extracurriculars, some seem to exhibit higher percentages of use than others. For instance, 42 percent of students listing political groups as their top extracurricular said that they use marijuana a few times per week, with only 25 percent indicating less than regular use. On the other hand, a mere 10 percent of those who self-identified as athletes responded that they use marijuana a few times per week, while 40 percent indicated less than regular use.
“I think there is a stigma about it at Yale,” Ricky said. “People know how to treat people who are drunk but they don’t know how to treat people who are high.” The possibility of misusing alcohol is much higher than it is with marijuana, he added.
Ricky highlighted that one of his main reasons for using marijuana was to de-stress.
“[Marijuana] eliminates any sense of stress or interpersonal competition. I feel [it] gives me perspective on things that seem, like, really big, anxiety-inducing issues in the bubble of Yale and allows me to look at them not through the context of Yale but dissociated from that context and see that they are meaningless,” he said.
Alcohol does not have a bonding effect like marijuana, he added. “You don’t pass a beer around a circle,” he joked, alleging that drinking is more conducive to dancing whereas marijuana fosters conversation.
For Ashley,* marijuana facilitates more than just conversation — she often smokes to write. Brought up in a liberal college town in a Southern state, Ashley smoked marijuana for the first time as a junior in high school, a “late bloomer” compared to many of the kids in her town. Frequent marijuana users themselves, her parents approved.
While working late on many of her Directed Studies papers, she would smoke to get the creative juices flowing.
“Hemingway said ‘write drunk, edit sober,’ so sometimes I write high,” she chuckled.
Ashley said she has also used marijuana to help her with insomnia and depression. Five out of the seven recreational users interviewed said they often use marijuana to self-medicate.
Geoffrey,* who has a long history of alcoholism in his family, said he sees marijuana as a safe way to help brighten his mood. Outraged by the harm alcohol has caused to college campuses, he is dismayed weed is not more accepted at Yale.
A frequent user, Geoffrey believes the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug is unwarranted. Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous class of drugs, with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence. This classification puts marijuana on a higher schedule than drugs like crystal meth and cocaine, while alcohol does not even make the list. Geoffrey, who smokes weed in lieu of drinking, is distressed by the much higher number of alcohol-related deaths among college students versus marijuana-related deaths, which are negligible. This, he says, renders the classification questionable.
Holloway provides some possible explanations for this distinction. “Alcohol is treated differently than marijuana in part because at any given moment one-quarter of our undergraduate population can legally possess, purchase and consume alcohol,” he said over email.
“I’m not blind to the fact that marijuana is used widely on the campus, and I would love to find a way to disrupt that practice for the general betterment of the Yale community,” Holloway noted. “Although I know that marijuana is smoked frequently I do not know how much of a role it plays in shaping Yale’s general culture. I certainly think that alcohol plays a more significant role in the broader culture and that is why we focus more of our energy there.”
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A frequent user, Charles* is doubtful of Yale’s marijuana policy changing any time soon. He shrugged: “Yale is not the kind of place that is just going to let people smoke out on Cross Campus or smoke up the Ivory Tower.”
During his freshman year, Charles and a few friends were caught by the police smoking on camera in the Yale University Art Gallery sculpture garden. The cops arrived, and he admitted the joints were his. Inside the brightly lit rooms of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, he was given his court summons. At first, Charles was worried, but the police said if he showed up to trial in a collared shirt and told the judge he went to Yale, everything would be fine.
On his court date, Charles was the only person in court with a collared shirt and tie. His $150 fine was converted to a $50 donation to a charity of his choice, and the incident was wiped clean from his record.
But he wasn’t completely off the hook — Charles and his friends had to face the Executive Committee. Ultimately, all he received was a warning. Looking back, Charles said, “The buildup was a process totally designed to freak you out, but when we got into the room it was very fair, and they were concerned and respectful and asked all the right questions.”
Many small possession cases do not even make it to the Executive Committee. Ricky received a warning from his dean when he was caught his freshman year. Charles has heard of many similar cases to his own, in which offenders received a warning.
The Executive Committee is made up of ten “regular voting members” — three tenured faculty members, three untenured faculty members, three undergraduates and the dean of Yale College. It also includes a “Coordinating Group” consisting of three “officers” (chair, fact-finder and secretary) and an undergraduate student.
Between 2004 and 2011, 806 students came before the Coordinating Group for various offenses, only 19 of whom were summoned for marijuana-related incidents. Their punishments ranged from “reprimands” and “probation for the remainder of one’s time at Yale” to “suspension for three terms.” Notably, only two students received the more serious punishments (one probation and one three-term suspension, respectively) and the remaining 17 got off with a “reprimand.” Executive Committee members could not be reached for comment.
These data suggest that, even before the gradual decriminalization of marijuana in Connecticut, the Executive Committee was relatively mild in punishing offending students. Holloway explains that “it remains illegal to possess marijuana in the state of Connecticut. Yale is in no position to ignore that law,” but the process is often softer than this official stance. Connecticut law is less dichotomous: A relaxation in the prosecution of marijuana-related offenses has gone hand in hand with a gradual, uneven process of decriminalization.
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Charles admired the way in which the Executive Committee showed such concern for his mental health throughout the process. Nevertheless, he said there needs to be more of an open conversation about marijuana on campus, especially with respect to mental health. He warned that the drug can easily become a crutch to assuage larger anxieties with which students do not know how to cope. He acknowledged that his own state of mental health the previous year led him to consume too much.
“It’s definitely unfair — the policy differences between alcohol and marijuana — but where I was at last year, the situation I was in definitely should have been treated as a health issue,” Charles said.
Part of the reason it isn’t treated as such may be that there simply isn’t a large volume of medical cases involving marijuana.
Yale Health director Paul Genecin commented that Yale Health rarely sees any cases of marijuana incapacitation in comparison to the high rates of acute alcohol incapacitation. He added that their role is not disciplinary; they treat cases as matters of health. Under new alcohol policy, students can be mandated to have counseling for an abuse disorder.
Although medical marijuana is now legal in Connecticut, Genecin explained it is only allowed for a very specific set of illnesses including cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. At this time, Yale Health does not prescribe medical marijuana because Genecin said it does not seem necessary for the student population, but he added that no one can be sure of what the future will hold.
Although there are very few cases of people becoming addicted to marijuana, Genecin explained there are some people who have withdrawal symptoms with an abuse disorder that is now classified in the DSM-V.
“There is still not enough appreciation of how addictive marijuana can be in some cases,” Genecin said.
Although many recreational users interviewed said there are rarely negative consequences to marijuana use, survey respondents reported three cases in which severe health reactions occurred. One student described having a panic attack while under the influence, and another “fainted after a concert post-weed.”
Faithful WWWW attendee and frequent user, Anna* was upset by the lack of conversation about marijuana during Camp Yale. Over the course of her freshmen orientation, she remembers receiving multiple hour-long talks about alcohol safety, use and health concerns, while marijuana and other drugs received less than a sentence.
Marissa Medansky ’15, a strong advocate for drug policy change on a national level and a former opinion editor for the News, has done research on the University’s drug history. In 2001, she explained, Yale was the fourth university to reimburse students who lost financial aid because of the Higher Education Act Aid Elimination Penalty, an act that rescinded federal aid from students with drug convictions. Despite such advances, Medansky said she thinks the student body is no longer as open as it once was in discussing drug use and policy.
She surmises the openness about drugs that students like Anna and Charles desire no longer exists on campus because of the emergence of social media. Back in the 1960s, she said, “No one had any expectation that a YDN [issue] from 1968 about the price of weed on college campuses would then be recorded for all of time.” Medansky pointed out that drug culture was seen as something very much confined to college, so people were more forthright in discussing it.
In Medansky’s opinion, the advent of social media has contributed to a culture much more secretive and much less fun. The fear of being associated with drugs post-graduation has chilled an active drug discussion on campus, she added.
“Nobody is going to form a ‘Students for a Sensible Drug Policy’ on campus because nobody wants to be president of that group,” Medansky said.
So instead, students congregate in smoke-filled rooms at low-key, off-campus parties. Bongs and joints are passed around a circle. The marijuana conversations are hidden, confined to small rooms while others pre-game for Woads, walking through the streets tipsy, unabashed.
* Names have been changed for the sake of anonymity
Sara Jones contributed reporting.