The Undergraduate Beat: A Critical Look at Substance Use on Campus


By Cortney Anderson, Pomona College

This semester I had the opportunity to conduct some unofficial sociological research for a class called Self-Publishing for Artists. Our assignment was to create a serial publication on a topic of our choice so, my magazine, sample, engages with a topic that has interested me for some time: substance use on college campuses.

Substance use is a special type of consumption that is increasingly prevalent on campuses in the U.S.—so much so that it is now considered a public health problem. According to a survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 23.9 percent of adults between the ages of 18-20 have used an illicit drug during the prior month, and half of all illicit drug initiators started with marijuana.

By reviewing existing literature, I found that the use of substances, especially the use of multiple concurrently, is becoming more widespread. I studied this material because I wanted to find out what motivates college students to binge drink, smoke weed, and take prescription drugs for unsanctioned reasons. But instead, I found that much of the research in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and behavioral sciences tend to pathologize and individualize substance use at the expense of considering social causes. I also found that sociological studies on the topic tend to rely on these other social sciences to inform their work. As such, many researchers treat substance use as an issue of deviance, and focus on individualized reasons for use, failing to recognize that substance use is socially situated.

As a student of the sociology of consumption, it struck me that it could be valuable to unearth the social ties and influences surrounding drug use and addiction, as these can be considered issues of consumption. So, I set out to do this this semester, and relied on Social Norms Theory to guide me.

As described by Erich Goode in “The Sociology of Drug Use,” Social Norms Theory allows for the careful consideration of the social environments of the user, and the various types of socialization the user may encounter, both inside and outside of the educational setting, and how this might affect their consumption of drugs. Reflecting this perspective, a 1976 study by Bowker found that perceived parental use and perceived parental views towards substance influenced whether students would use while in college. In particular, perceived social acceptance of this type of consumption by loved ones was found to positively influence users. This finding was reflected in my interviews too. For many, their first time using marijuana or psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms) was with close friends, siblings, or cousins.

Social Norms Theory allows us to view substance use as a culture in itself built upon groupthink and ritualistic practices. One can observe this at my school, Pomona College, which has for decades offered its students a scheduled party nearly every night of the week. At these events, which are generally well-attended, generous amounts of cheap beer and wine are served to underage students. Additionally, every Wednesday night at midnight, stoners from all the Claremont Colleges gather at a clock tower, then go to an ever-changing outdoor destination to light up in company. This has been a tradition for years, and to my knowledge, campus safety has never intervened. Rituals and traditions like these, centered around the consumption of drugs, allows a substance use culture to thrive in this private institution.

Special events on campus reinforce this substance culture too. Every year for graduation, the college plans social gatherings and dinner parties centered around the consumption of alcohol for anxious, reminiscing seniors. During graduation weekend, events for the families of graduates will provide alcohol and copious amounts of food. And, during the annual Alumni Weekend, just prior to graduation, the college carts in cases of beer and wine for a slew of social events, and student groups welcome their alumni over libations. Viewed in this light, the prevalence and accessibility of alcohol and drugs on campus, provided by the institution, is astounding.

Through interviews I learned that some students first tried drugs and alcohol in seventh and eighth grade, others, high school. For some, graduation from high school, and the transition into college serves as a parallel transition into drug habits, as hallucinogens, stimulants, and prescription drugs are easy to come by in a concentrated area of young people. Perhaps this is why poly-drug use, or multiple substances at once, is on the rise. One man I spoke with admitted to often consuming mushrooms with alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco. It seems that the consumption of many drugs at once in the company of others is something that reinforces and reproduces a drug culture.

But maybe it isn’t all bad. I was surprised to find that many of my interviewees referred to each other while speaking with me, which illustrates how this type of social consumption can create community. One woman said, “I like to ally myself in my mind with others who smoke weed because we generally agree on how the world is a fucked up place.” Through consumption, she, like many, aligns herself with people who engage in the same consumption habits as she does, and uses the drug and the community around it to cope with her dissatisfaction with the world. She also frames it as political, saying “It’s like my way of saying ‘Fuck you’ to the system. I’m gonna blow smoke at you, mother-fucker. That’s all I can do.” This impractical yet rebellious, anti-system mentality seems to be prevalent in drug cultures.

Something that I think connected all my interviewees was their recognition that their consumption of drugs was becoming an issue, and simultaneous unwillingness to change. More qualitative research should be done on substance use among young people. Research on this topic would illuminate how people turn to consumption as a means of coping. Furthermore, sociology has the opportunity to influence policy and change commonly held views about substance use as an individual’s trouble, rather than a societal issue with (some) social roots.

Published by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

Writer, sociologist, public intellectual, twenty-first century nomad.

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