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Recent UI drug raids highlight unfair drug-alcohol punishment discrepancy

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 30, 2010 7:30 AM

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According to University of Iowa policy, residence halls are considered substance-free environments. Nevertheless, recent events prove that not all substances are treated equally.

Earlier this month, law-enforcement authorities arrested 11 UI students on charges of possession of controlled substances, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of burglary tools. The arrests occurred when the Johnson County Drug Task Force — made up of police forces from the UI, Iowa City, and Coralville — raided two residence halls.

In light of the raid, it seems necessary to pose the following question: Would 18 police officers feel the need to rummage through 12 dorm rooms if the substance in question was beer and vodka instead of marijuana? Empirical evidence suggests not. Alcohol-related offenses in residence halls are handled in-house by UI officials, while police officers are called to the scene in most cases of suspected drug use.

We have no qualms with the police’s decision to charge the 11 students in question; they broke the law. But these arrests — arriving after weeks of collaborative planning among residence-hall officials and law-enforcement agencies — highlight an overt punishment disparity between alcohol- and marijuana-related violations. We suggest resident-hall officials adopt a more uniform policy to correct the current incongruities, whether that entails calling in police for every substance violation or dealing with all offenses in-house.

So why the gap in enforcement policy?

“The reason they are dealt with different primarily is due to the uncertainty that sometimes comes with a drug-related offense,” said Greg Thompson, the manager of Residence Life operations.

But uncertainty surely occurs when RAs deal with highly intoxicated students. Don’t the unquestionably dangerous and potentially lethal effects of alcohol warrant the same serious response as drug violations? Marijuana use isn’t fueling belligerent behavior downtown or leading to near-death inebriation.

And, according to recent data, marijuana is far less prevalent than alcohol. Thirty-five illicit drug violations were reported in dorms this past fall, according to statistics obtained from the Office of Residence Life. Comparatively, Thompson said, approximately 220 underage-alcohol-consumption violations occurred in residence halls during the same time period.

“There’s a vision or thought, whether it’s right or wrong, that alcohol is a more common offense and drugs are more high risk,” Thompson said.

It’s clear university priorities are distorted, relying more on negative stigma than rational thinking.

Offenders caught imbibing in UI residence halls are subject to little more than monetary fines and slaps on the wrist; students who partake in illicit drug use, commonly marijuana, face the courts.

Both underage consumption of alcohol and using marijuana are illegal. But the latter results in actual legal consequences for many UI students.

Drug policies at other state schools are similar, but alcohol regulation generally isn’t as strict.

According to Iowa State University’s policy handbook for residence halls, all laws pertaining to drugs apply to those who live in campus housing. ISU allows students 21 and older to consume alcohol in the privacy of certain residence halls, but underage violators are subject to an in-house judicial process similar to the UI’s.

The University of Northern Iowa also permits the consumption of alcohol by of-age students in residence halls. Students who violate UNI’s drug policy are subject to sanctions, prosecution, or treatment programs.

Thompson, who was formerly a UNI employee, said the guidelines among the three schools are different because of Iowa City’s drinking culture.

“Our alcohol-use rates are different,” Thompson said, and the UI isn’t planning on changing its substance policies in the near future.

Yes, the UI students’ alcohol use is different from that at other schools; it’s out of control. Still, it’s unlikely that a team of cops will ever pillage the dorms searching for empty longnecks and red cups.

Although the Editorial Board in no way supports or condones the use of illegal substances, such a discrepancy is simply unfair.

UI officials should reject anachronistic, Reefer Madness stereotypes of marijuana use and bring drug-offense consequences in line with alcohol-related transgressions. Eliminating the punishment gap is long overdue.


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