Narratives: The Drug Scene at Occidental
Students are drinking on the street outside the open gate of a house party. Through the gate, in the backyard, the smell of burning marijuana piques the interest of a newcomer who smiles, scanning the crowd for its source. The smokers are in plain view, taking turns hitting a pipe on the edge of the patio. Another joint is burning across the way. Several more are likely being readied, unseen somewhere in the crowd. But the alcohol and marijuana the students are ingesting are just the first drug encountered at a typical Friday night party at Occidental.
It is past midnight and the party is more crowded than ever. The patio is full and students have crammed themselves inside of the house. After an exchange of looks, five students file into the bathroom, locking the door behind them. A student loitering down the hall gives a knowing smirk. Another scoffs and rolls his eyes. The group comes out a few minutes later, nonchalantly flipping the light switch and rejoining the crowd outside.
Cocaine use is less prevalent at Occidental, but nonetheless present.
Like many students, Robert* regularly smokes marijuana and drinks alcohol; however, he will occasionally take psychedelics, Adderall and cocaine. The latter he took recently on an impromptu weekend night out.
“I showed up at a friend’s room to say hello, there were some lines on the table and that was that,” Robert said.
From there, he went to a different party, chatted with friends and strangers, took a walk down York Boulevard and went to sleep.
“[Taking the cocaine] was fun,” Robert said. “A nice surprise. The cherry on top of the night.”
But it is not a habit, he said. This was the only time he has taken cocaine this semester. His impression is that most cocaine users at Occidental are in a similar camp, taking the drug infrequently and only to enhance their night.
“I know a few people who push boundaries, but they still seem to keep it within reason,” Robert said. “These are the more experienced people.”
But if cocaine exists behind closed doors, heroin is concealed under lock and key.
Steven* buys his heroin from a woman he contacted through Craigslist. He pays $80-$90 a gram. The heroin he buys is black tar, the most common form of heroin in California. Known for its impurity, black tar is traditionally smoked on tin foil, a process called “chasing the dragon.” Steven worries about the cancer-causing chemicals released through this method and cited the impracticality of smoking in his dorm room.
“Besides, I never got the hang of lighting it. I always felt like I was wasting product,” Steven explains, referring to his preferred method of administration. “With nasal administration the effect lasts longer anyway.”
He pinches off an eraser-sized chunk and places it into a spoon, pouring a dash of water heated in his kettle over it. As it dissolves, Steven talks about his habit.
He has been taking opiates irregularly since his first year of high school when a friend shared some Oxycodone he had been prescribed after a knee surgery. After that, he took pills when he knew a friend had them. He said it wasn’t until his senior year that he began actively seeking opiates out, at first by asking his marijuana dealer if he knew someone who had pills. The next year he tried heroin for the first time.
“I told him Vicodin, Oxycodone, Dilaudid, it didn’t matter,” he said. “I just wanted something. I think this is how pretty much everyone gets into it. They try some pills, and as time goes on their interest builds and they move on to heroin, which really doesn’t feel much different from the oxies I first tried, it’s just cheaper and more available.”
He stirs the mixture with a toothpick. After about 10 minutes, the heroin has dissolved, turning the water a slightly reddish brown. A few bits of solid matter remain, but he explains that these are just the additives with which the heroin is cut and not worth snorting. He sucks the mixture up with an oral syringe, the kind used to administer medication to babies and dogs. Tilting his head back, he slowly pushes the plunger and inhales softly, taking some in each nostril.
The relief is instantaneous, manifesting itself as a soft smile and subtle twitch of the eyes. The scene is not dramatic. He does not fall back into his bed and pass out. He just stands there and shrugs, amused that he has a spectator. His discomfort washes away and he becomes more relaxed and talkative.
“This is the 26th day in a row I’ve done this,” he said.
Steven is a junior and now goes through periods of heroin use, usually two to five weeks long, interspersed with longer stretches of being clean.
None of his friends or family know about Steven’s heroin use. He suspects they would not believe him if he told them about it.
“The only times you’ll hear Oxy students talking about heroin — my friends included— is in a joking fashion, sarcastically talking about wanting to shoot up before class,” Steven said.
He attributes this attitude to the fact that the drug is invisible on campus.
“It’s hard for these kids to believe there’d be anyone on campus who would take this stuff, so it’s just another thing to be ironic about,” Steven said.
Because of his privacy, Steven doesn’t see himself as a part of any drug culture at Occidental. He thinks most students would be shocked to learn some of their peers are taking heroin. He believes there are at least a few dozen students like him harboring secret addictions.
Barbara* holds a different view of drug use from most students, and even from the administration and student groups, who she believes do not seriously facilitate discussion about drug use and its possible health and ethical consequences.
As a teenager, she smoked marijuana regularly and often took ecstasy and cocaine while going out. Like many users of stimulants, she took them to ensure she would have a good night, free from worry. After an MDMA overdose in high school, which she describes as the worst hours of her life, she began to stop using illegal drugs.
Now she only drinks alcohol and is highly critical of the use of drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and heroin, which she sees as hypocritical for Occidental students, who generally promote fair trade and human rights but take drugs on the weekend. Such drugs are trafficked from Latin America, at great human cost, and she is deeply troubled by the lethal consequences that American drug demand has on poorer countries.
“We sit around and pretend to care, but we don’t do anything,” Barbara said. “People choose to gloss over this. If you care about issues, care about people who are actually dying because you want to have a fun night on [ecstasy].”
Barbara said that unless she is prompted to do so, she will not bring up her views to students who she knows take such drugs. With her past, she feels she doesn’t have much ground to sermonize.
Still, from a health perspective, she does not think Residential Education and Housing Services (ResEd) is wrong to focus on alcohol, the only drug besides caffeine that she still takes.
“Alcohol is the real danger, to us in America at least, far more than these other drugs,” Barbara said. “There should be more conversation [about other drugs], but really alcohol is the bad guy.”
As for Steven, he said he will stop when his current supply runs out. He will find someone on craigslist selling Suboxone, a drug prescribed to addicts in opioid replacement therapy. It prevents the body from processing heroin and staves off withdrawal. Some patients will sell their Suboxone and keep buying heroin. It is from such individuals that Steven gets his. After a week or so of tapering on Suboxone, he will be clean without suffering any serious withdrawal symptoms.
“But that’ll just be for awhile,” he adds. “It’s not like I’m going to quit for good.”
Student Opinions: Navigating Peer Pressure and Stimulating Conversation
The “behind closed doors” culture surrounding drugs like cocaine and heroin can mean the school’s policies surrounding use, as well as illegal drug use itself, are not often discussed. A survey of the student body intended to gather information on which drugs students are doing and how prevalent students feel the drug scene is on campus was recently distributed by The Occidental Weekly.
While 37 percent of respondents said they do not use any illegal drugs (marijuana, cocaine, LSD/acid, prescription drugs, MDMA/molly/ecstasy, psychedelic mushrooms, heroin, “other”), only one respondent said they do not know anyone on campus who uses drugs.
The survey also included an anonymous comment section, in which many respondents indicated that students on campus have no problem with the current drug scene at Occidental.
“Drugs are available if you want them, but they by no means define the social scene,” one anonymous respondent said via the survey. “[There is] very little pressure to do any drugs, lots of kids opt out entirely. The variety of drug interest around campus is kind of representative of the social scene at large (and I view this as a positive thing).”
However, others weren’t so keen on the lackadaisical culture on campus.
“I’m fine with people who do drugs as long as it does not affect the people around them in a negative or harmful manner,” another anonymous respondent said via the survey. “Also, I don’t want to know about it. You want to smoke a bowl in your room down the hall from me? Fine. But ventilate the room in such a way that I don’t have to deal with the smell or fumes.”
Acting Dean of Students Erica O’Neal Howard said that Occidental’s stance on drug and alcohol use is grounded in both concern for students’ success and an acknowledgement of federal and state laws.
“My greatest concern is that students are able to earn the degrees they seek and experience the many exciting opportunities that exist here at Oxy,” Howard said via email. “Drug abuse can impede that pursuit and, at times, lead to the tragic loss of life.”
ResEd Director Chad Myers concurred with Dean Howard’s response, but he gave no further comment regarding ResEd’s specific opinions.
Alcohol is, by far, the most widely used drug on campus. This is a fact reflected on Saturday nights in the residence halls and at off-campus parties, but perhaps made even more visible by the amount of preventative education and policies the administration and ResEd foist upon the student body during Orientation and throughout their academic years. Many respondents to the survey noted that while marijuana and other illegal drugs are acknowledged in the college’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Policy, a greater dialogue about illegal drug use is starkly absent from the campus conversation.
“Oxy gets up in arms over most harmful things, but it’s taboo to acknowledge that drugs are bad,” another anonymous respondent said.
Some Resident Advisors (RAs) feel the same way. Kayla,* an RA in an upper-division residence hall, said that while RAs are CPR/First Aid trained and are equipped to help students struggling with drug addiction get confidential help, she thinks that ResEd and the college do not focus enough on illegal drug use and safety.
“I think everyone campus-wide should be more forthcoming, open and blatant around drugs,” Kayla said via email. “Often for administrators this conversation can be taboo, but silence is more deadly than honesty.”
She pointed out that though the Alcohol and Other Drugs Policy changed this year— specifically citing a change to the amnesty policy that allows one or more students to be eligible to receive amnesty if they are all there to help a student — she does not believe that students are aware of this change.
She also believes that drugs are not addressed enough in the First Year Residential Experience (FYRE) curriculum.
“They briefly mention cross-fading but not heavier drugs, which students do use,” Kayla said via email. “Alcohol is something we discuss at Oxy, drugs are not.”
Because drug use is under wraps at Occidental, calling for an expanded campus conversation can seem futile. But acknowledging students’ experiences — be they positive, negative or nonexistent — proves to bear some strange and interesting fruit.
The Dealer’s Perspective
Cameron* is a dealer. Though he said he’s probably biased in saying so, he cannot deny the prevalence of marijuana at Occidental.
“Last year, one of my friends needed someone to give him his pee so he could pass a drug test, and we literally could not find anyone,” Cameron said.
According to the survey, 60 percent of students have smoked marijuana in the last two months. In Cameron’s opinion, the survey probably underestimates the actual number of students that smoke.
“Ask yourself who the kind of people that answer drug-related surveys are, and you’ll probably come to the conclusion that they aren’t potheads,” Cameron said.
From a dealer’s perspective, Cameron said that he has always been very impressed with how gracious his customers are.
“Everyone on this campus is so nice,” Cameron said. “I’m friends with everyone that picks up from me to one degree or another. Sometimes someone will come by for a sack and we’ll end up chatting for like an hour.”
He also notes that in his experience, students are much more likely to get written up for smoking marijuana than for selling it.
Despite the permeation of marijuana throughout the social scene at Occidental, Cameron does not believe that it fosters any sort of exclusivity.
“Unlike some places, where drugs are kind of forced on you, here people are really nice about their drugs,” Cameron said. “There’s never any peer pressure to do drugs, which probably actually makes the people that have never done them feel more welcome to try them.”
Cameron recently swore off all substances himself. When he did partake, he was an avid user of psychedelics like mushrooms and acid.
The way that Cameron describes his experiences with tripping is akin to a metaphysical therapy session, allowing him to step back and examine his relationship with the world from a new perspective.
“On a psychedelic, you are hyper-conscious that the personality that you’ve constructed is exactly that — a construct, entirely made up,” Cameron said. “You have a chance to look at what is really at work inside of you in the action of creating your personality and the way you interact with the world.”
Tripping is not all about kicking back and falling down the rabbit hole, though, Cameron warns.
He said that some people start to use psychedelics as a crutch, trying to access that new frame of mind without actually altering their lifestyle.
“That’s such a disservice to yourself, because it forecloses the possibility of you ever building that bridge,” Cameron said.
This realization is exactly why Cameron no longer partakes in any substances — he no longer feels that he needs them.
“I can explore those areas of my psyche without any substances,” Cameron said. “I’ve escaped the trap of relying upon a substance to create a certain mentality or experience.”
A Sobering Experience
Despite all of the stories about tripping, dealing and covert addictions that the survey exposed, there are still people on campus who have simply never been interested in substance use. Take Zeke,* a student who navigates the social scene but has no desire to drink, smoke or do other drugs.
“It doesn’t determine who I’m friends with or whether or not someone will be friends with me,” Zeke explained. “It’s very much a personal choice.”
Even as someone who doesn’t partake himself, Zeke can’t deny the substance-centric social scene at Occidental. He said that he is really the only person he can think of who doesn’t “go out” on the weekends. Despite this, he does not think the party scene intrudes on the lives of people who don’t drink or do drugs.
“It’s totally not in my face unless I go out and half look for it,” Zeke said.
For the most part, Zeke has no complaints about being sober in what can at times feel like a sea of inebriation, although he said that when he does go to parties, he doesn’t always have the best time.
“It can feel isolating,” Zeke admitted. “Sometimes I feel that at parties, like ‘this is not my zone.’ But it’s totally fine overall.”
Zeke is someone who likes to have fun and, despite being part of this minority camp at Occidental, he said his preferences have not impacted him negatively.
“It’s definitely led to an interesting college life,” Zeke said. “Not in a bad way, just in a very interesting way.”
A friend approached Zeke as he sat at the Marketplace the morning after Fall Fest. He laid his head on the table, lamenting the drunk “text-bombing” he did the night before.
Zeke chuckled, nodding his head toward his hungover companion.
“That’s the only thing that bums me out, when I’m like ‘you totally could have avoided that,'” Zeke said.
*Pseudonyms have been used to replace students’ names in order to maintain anonymity.