Mixed signals on substance abuse at San Diego State

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by Leonardo Castaneda, Editor in Chief

Co-written by Madison Hopkins, opinion editor

On May 6, 2008, the San Diego State Police Department and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrested almost 100 people involved in drug and alcohol trafficking following an extensive five-month undercover operation. It was reported that 33 San Diego State students were arrested, and 50 pounds of marijuana, four pounds of cocaine, 350 Ecstasy pills, multiple other drugs and paraphernalia, a shotgun, three semi-automatic guns and $60,000 in cash were found, according to the LA Times. Called Operation Sudden Fall, the arrests came at the heels of the drug overdose deaths of two students at SDSU.

Following the operation, police began taking alcohol and drug related issues more seriously, SDSUPD Captain Joshua Mays said.

“Since 2008 and Sudden Fall there was kind of a different attitude in the culture,” Mays said. “I think it kind of reverberated a very strong message that if you are engaged in any type of drug activity, you will be arrested and prosecuted, including alcohol.”

Six years later

Six years after Operation Sudden Fall spotlighted SDSU’s troubles with drug and alcohol abuse, the number of drug and alcohol related crimes near campus has decreased dramatically. The number per 1,000 students of drug abuse violations, DUIs, liquor law and drunkenness have dropped by an average of almost 50 percent, as reported by the SDSUPD in its annual Chancellor Report. Disorderly conduct is almost eradicated, with an adjusted decrease of 95 percent, to just three incidents last year.

crime-infographicThe reports show a pattern consistent with increased drug and alcohol enforcement after 2008, with offenses enforced peaking mostly in 2010. That year, there were 303 liquor law offenses; by last year that number was down to 41. One measurement, however, has bucked that trend.

Except for a dip from 2011 to 2012, the number of individuals being taken to the hospital by ambulance because of drug- or alcohol-related reasons has increased steadily. Adjusted for decreases in student population since 2008, the number of medical assists in 2013 was 222 percent higher.

These two trends seem to contradict, as they correspondingly show a decrease and an increase in drug and alcohol abuse at SDSU. Those contradicting trends could be caused in part by a change in practice at SDSUPD. Because the department’s goal is to encourage students in danger to seek medical assistance, they do not prosecute offenses in those situations, Mays said.

That means that in 2006, if a student called 911 for a medical assist, he or she might also be charged with other offenses such as liquor law violations. Those would appear in the Chancellor’s Reports as separate incidents. Today, that same call would only result in a medical assist. Offenses are therefore only recorded if they are enforced, Mays said.

This could help encourage students to call 911 when they or someone they are with is at risk of an overdose, but it makes it more difficult to accurately track changes in drug-and-alcohol-related offenses. In practice, the only measurement that has not changed since 2008 is the number of medical assists.

While protection from criminal charges might be a means to encourage students to protect their health, a lack of enforcement also doesn’t mean that students are not punished if they have to call an ambulance.


University Enforcement

“The biggest message is that if you call 911 to get help to somebody who has had alcohol or drugs and it appears it has been too much, we are not going to take enforcement action against you because you’re there engaging in underage drinking,” Mays said.

But criminal prosecution isn’t the only punishment students worry about.

Kristen probably didn’t expect to end her Saturday night in a hospital, waiting to find out if she had alcohol poisoning.

She had gone out partying that night, which meant some drinking. Kristen (whose real name was changed to protect her identity) came back home to her residence hall and relaxed in the floor lounge, a typical ending for an SDSU student’s night. That’s where her roommate and resident advisor found her.

They believed she was in danger, Kristen disagreed. They called the cops and Kristen ended up on a stretcher and in an ambulance headed to a hospital. Within an hour, a doctor decided she was not dangerously drunk and she was allowed to go home.

Kristen was one of the 89 alcohol-and drug-related medical assists reported by SDSUPD in 2013, tied with 2011 for most reported incidents since 2007.

A few weeks after the incident, the university placed Kristen on probation for one and a half years. During that time she can’t run in Associated Students elections, or even be treasurer of her sorority. But this punishment is mild compared to what it could have been if she had prior offenses.

[pullquote_left]Kristen probably didn’t expect to end her Saturday night in a hospital, waiting to find out if she had alcohol poisoning.[/pullquote_left]

SDSU varies the severity of its punishments for this issue — it gets more severe with each subsequent incident. On the second offense, students can be suspended from the school. On the third, they can be expelled. All students who violate the code are required to complete counseling with the university’s ASPIRE program to search for the root causes of their alcohol or drug abuse, according to Associate Vice President for Campus LIfe Timothy Quinnan.

Although they are safe from criminal prosecution, many students fear university punishments just as much because it could affect their academic futures. Freshmen in particular worry about returning to their residence halls when RAs may be on the lookout for students under the influence — even if they are under control, Kristen said.

“They say when you come into the dorms that the only way they will call the cops on you is if you are to the point to where they can see that you need assistance,” Kristen said. “I believed that for the most part until this happened to me.”

“I feel like it was very unfair to me, I was completely fine and they jumped the gun on calling the cops without checking me out first and I feel like that’s what they do with everyone,” Kristen said.


Having an impact

According to Kristen, most freshmen make plans to sleep elsewhere when they’ve been drinking rather than face the possibility of running into the police or an RA while walking back to the residence halls. Mays acknowledged that enforcement could make some students worried about walking outside at night after drinking.

[pullquote_right]In addition to education about SDSUPD enforcement practices, incoming and current students are provided with safe alternatives to drinking, such as Aztec Nights[/pullquote_right]

“I think our enforcement posture probably has people concerned that if they are walking home, stumbling on the sidewalk, that they could be potentially picked up by the police,” Mays said. “The reason that we do that, and this isn’t part of our message to them, is that we just want to make sure they’re okay.”

In addition to education about SDSUPD enforcement practices, incoming and current students are provided with safe alternatives to drinking, such as Aztec Nights. These, along with residence hall alcohol policies, are intended to deter drinking, Quinnan said. He believes these policies have been important in reducing the number of drug and alcohol related offenses at SDSU the last few years.

“I think it’s effective and I think that we would much rather be in a position where were proactive and doing what we can to prevent people from putting themselves and others in harms way,” Quinnan said. “Are they perfect? No. Is it a program and a process that should always be under review and improved to make sure it’s relevant and cutting edge? Absolutely. So do I think it has had an impact? Definitely.”

For her part, Kristen has moved out of the residence halls since her medical assist and she continues serving the terms of her probation. She says her friends are afraid of ending up in a similar situation.

“You should be able to go home to where you feel safe,” Kristen said. “But if you don’t feel safe in your own home what are you supposed to do?”

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