Before coming to Yale, my classmates and I all clicked through hours of information on safe alcohol consumption. When we got here, we attended many more hours of on-campus training. The extent of our education on drugs other than alcohol was a student-body-wide email, widely left unread, titled “Drug Prevention Program,” with a 14 page document attached. During our extensive alcohol training, our deans, first-year counselors and health educators taught us to call for help for anyone in danger of excessive alcohol consumption. Yale’s policy, they assured us, was that alcohol overdose was treated as a health concern, not a disciplinary one. The University was looking out for our best interests by encouraging us to seek medical attention rather than scaring us into silence with harsh punishments.
Of the dozens of my classmates I mentioned the “Drug Prevention Program” email to, not one had so much as noticed it. But I did read it and was astonished. The document begins by outlining punishments for illicit drug use, including “reprimand, probation, rustication, restriction, suspension, expulsion, and referral for prosecution.” The second half of the document, “Health Risks of Use of Illicit Drugs and Abuse of Alcohol,” covers each common drug of abuse, detailing the process of addiction, its devastating consequences and the importance of medical attention. This document, which accounted for the entirety of my drug education from Yale, simultaneously acknowledges that addiction is a medical problem requiring medical attention and promises harsh punishment for drug use.
I was not the first to notice the contradiction between Yale’s drug and alcohol policies. In 2015, Clay Dupuy SPH ’17 began the Yale chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a national organization working to “[replace] the disastrous war on drugs with policies rooted in evidence, compassion and human rights.” When I first ran into Clay, his passion for the organization was evident, and I quickly signed up. The fight against the war on drugs is ambitious — it challenges an enormously widespread and deep-seated set of policies and problems — but it is tied to many of the societal problems I care most about. The war has caused racially discriminatory mandatory minimum sentencing laws and has contributed to mass incarceration. Every administration since Nixon’s has imprisoned an enormous number of disproportionately poor, black and Latino young men, removing them from society and effectively ruining their chances at leading successful lives. It has contributed to the opioid epidemic, the most devastating killer of our generation. The war on drugs has caused or contributed to more social and health problems than I can count, and joining the fight against it has been one of the most important things I’ve done at Yale.
While the war on drugs is vast and multifaceted, our chapter started close to home, advocating common sense policy at Yale. This week, Yale took a big step in the right direction by amending the alcohol amnesty policy to include other drugs. A student may now call for help for themselves or their classmates during an overdose or negative drug experience without fear of harsh disciplinary action. In prioritizing health over punishment, Yale has begun to treat addiction like the disease it is.
Drug amnesty is an important success for our group, but our work is far from over. Yale continues to treat marijuana as a Schedule I substance, in line with the Trump administration rather than Connecticut’s own policy, which allows for medical marijuana. Medical marijuana has proven enormously helpful to a range of patients, including those fighting cancer, living with epilepsy and battling chronic pain. It has even shown promise in treating the opioid epidemic. Rates of death by overdose are rapidly increasing in every state except those where medical marijuana is legal and accessible. Many pain patients are choosing to medicate with marijuana in place of the opiate painkillers that are the major gateway to opioid addiction.
We also still have work to do in education. The Yale programs for first years are woefully lacking in information about drug usage and safety. Students for Sensible Drug Policy hands out information on illicit drugs during Spring Fling and finals periods to improve student awareness and safety. We have attempted to offer drug purity testing kits before Spring Fling, but the administration has been staunchly opposed. For us, the choice is analogous to providing condoms. Students are going to use drugs, and providing these simple kits has the potential to prevent serious harm.
We are also working on shaping local and state policy, from improving access to treatment to reducing punishments for drug use. The war on drugs is widely considered a failure. Reform is not only necessary, but increasingly possible. Now is the time to join our organization in working to replace outdated, racist and ineffective policies with evidence-based policy geared toward health and safety. We need all the help we can get.
Aidan Pillard is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College and the vice president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .