What You Need to Know About BU’s Drug and Alcohol Policies

April 26, 2010

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Photo by Nicole Cousins.

BU’s drug and alcohol policies have changed – but no one seems to know about it.

The words “zero tolerance” can no longer be found in the Lifebook, and in their place are something that looks like medical amnesty and an in-practice (but not in Lifebook) change in marijuana policy.

Aiming for Amnesty

Last March, Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore added a memorandum to the Lifebook which says:

“When the University learns of a student’s illegal possession or use of alcohol or drugs as a result of that student’s seeking medical assistance for him- or herself, or another person, that student ordinarily will not be subject to University disciplinary sanctions for possession or use of that substance so long as the student completes all education and counseling programs recommended by the University.”

This policy is not an explicit medical amnesty policy such as ones found at other schools. The memo avoids the term “medical amnesty” and takes the policy a step down from those at places like Emerson College, which instituted a medical amnesty policy last February. However, the change does prioritize safety over fear of being punished and helps to eliminate any hesitation a students might have when calling for medical help for themselves or a friend, said Nigel Durham, president of BU’s chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP).

“Medical amnesty takes away the fear of calling for help for a friend. You don’t have to have that mental battle – do I call or do I not?” he said.

BU’s policy also includes complete amnesty for any individuals who may have been sexually abused or assaulted in a situation involving alcohol or drugs.

The clarification of BU’s stance on medical amnesty is the result of a long and difficult battle led by Stacy Fontana, head of the student union’s medical amnesty task force and former president of SSDP, and Matt Seidel, former Student Union president. Fontana said that she began working on a medical amnesty policy during the fall of 2008, collecting surveys, testimonials, research reports, and a petition with 2,000 signatures.

“An answer from the administration finally came in March 2009, via a letter from Elmore stating that basically the policy already was Medical Amnesty and that we’d been wasting our time,” said Fontana in an e-mail. “Well then [why] didn’t he say that before? And where was it written in the policy? It wasn’t. So the letter became an attachment on the bu.edu/dos page under ‘drug and alcohol policies’.”

Fontana said she was not satisfied with Elmore’s response, so SSDP reinstated the task force in the fall of 2009 and was successful in having the letter officially written into the policy.

It was a success, said Fontana, although not a complete one — the memo only pertains to alcohol, and she had wanted it to cover all drugs.

Current Student Union president James Sappenfield says that in the long run the memo constitutes a victory.

“We went from having a zero-tolerance policy to a much more modern policy,” he said. “It’s no longer a situation where students should be afraid.”

The Meaning of Medical Amnesty

The memo’s vague wording coupled with the policy of considering students on a case-by-case basis (indicated by the qualifier “ordinarily” in the memo) could lead to potential trouble, said Thomas Nolan, an associate professor of criminal justice and a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department.

“It’s troubling because the students are going to receive a message” that says “we do not have a medical amnesty policy, but you are probably not going to get in trouble,” said Nolan.

Nolan said he would like to see Boston University have a clearly defined medical amnesty policy.

“What would be progressive would be to have an absolutely medical amnesty policy. I am not saying that just as a professor of criminal justice but also as a parent,” said Nolan, whose daughter and son attend BU. “If [my children] were in harm’s way and if they hesitated to get medical attention for themselves or a friend, I would be very unhappy to hear about it.”

Arthur Emma, who is running for Student Union president with the RenewBU slate , said he considers medical amnesty a major issue thinks the language should be clearer.

“I think the administration makes it purposely vague because they don’t want to feel completely obligated to give them amnesty,” he said.

“If we could get the university to clarify the language, that would be fantastic, but getting the university to change the policy was the closest negotiation we achieved,” said Sappenfield.

Elmore believes that the policy is clear and fair for students.

“I think that memo lays out what we do,” said Elmore. “We don’t use the term medical amnesty because I think it means different things to different people.”

Marijuana Penalties

Students will also no longer be kicked out of housing on a first strike for being around or smoking marijuana, Elmore said.

“We do not kick people out of housing as we used to,” he said. This shift occurred as a response to the passing of Question 2 in Massachusetts in November 2008, said Elmore, which stated that possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is punishable only by civil penalties, specifically a $100 ticket.

However, in the Lifebook section on Drugs and Narcotics, this is not explicitly mentioned.

“Students who possess, procure, consume, transfer, or use illegal drugs in or around the residences will be subject to disciplinary action ranging from expulsion from the residence system to expulsion from the University,” the Lifebook states.

One student experienced these changes at the beginning of last semester when two RAs smelled marijuana, entered his room in West campus and found a handle of alcohol and “a gram or two of weed,” said the CAS sophomore who asked that his name not be used. He was then issued a possession ticket and later met with the residence hall adviser, who determined that he would have to pay a $500 fine, be listed on academic probation, and meet with a person in student health services who would assess his drug use, he said.

This is a stark contrast to Mike Simmons’s experience about a year earlier. In October 2008 he was smoking weed with a friend in the grotto outside of West Campus, what some students know as “the bakery”, when an undercover police officer found them, took their BU IDs and notified the Office of Residence Life.

“I had a trial with [the] head of housing who heard my case and I wrote an apology letter but I already been written up for having alcohol and too many people in my dorm,” Simmons said.

“I was then given a time limit for when I had to be out of the dorms and I moved out,” he said.

An Education in Change

Following the changes in policy came the challenge in educating students about them. SSDP and student union created a card with a quote from the memo, consequences for first and second incidents and BUPD’s anonymous tip line, which they handed out first semester, said Sappenfield.

However, many students remain unaware of the specifics of BU’s drug and alcohol policy.

“A lot of students go through the entire student career without looking at the Lifebook,” said Emma.

Mike Martino, a sophomore in the College of General Studies, said that he had heard that union was trying to get a medical amnesty policy passed last year but had not heard anything about it since then.

Rahul Ahuja, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, said that he only knew that a two-strikes policy exists.

Elmore said that students have a responsibility to educate themselves about the school’s policies.

“We put it out there for people to see; it was on our website. But people have to read things,” he said. “At the beginning of each year I point people to the code of responsibility,” he added.

But this is still not enough, says Durham.

“We want a policy of openness where students are made aware of the changes that take place in the BU sanctions.”