Let’s Not Sweep Substance Abuse Under the Rug — Again

A plan to turn a UC Berkeley student co-op into a substance-free house is like telling a horny teenager not to have sex.

One night in 2011, a friend of mine spent the entire night awake with her finger on her boyfriend’s pulse. His breathing had slowed drastically, and she was afraid for his life. She knew that if she called an ambulance, both of their memberships in the Berkeley Student Cooperative would likely be terminated — they would be evicted not only from their home, but also from their community. When her boyfriend finally awoke, she burst into tears. She knew she’d made a foolish gamble. But she was a scared twenty-year-old put into a difficult situation, and she didn’t know what to do.

College students are a notoriously high-risk population when it comes to substance abuse, no matter where they reside — dorms, fraternities, apartments, or co-ops. The Berkeley Student Cooperative (BSC) provides housing to more than 1,200 students, and Cloyne Court, the largest BSC house with 149 students, was the place I called home for two years.

During my first house meeting at Cloyne, we talked about drug use and harm reduction. The gravity of the situation was made clear when our house managers discussed tragic drug overdoses that had occurred at the BSC. The most recent of these was in 2010 when John Gibson, a member of Cloyne Court, overdosed. He remains in a vegetative state today. His mother sued the BSC, accusing the organization of being aware of a drug culture in Cloyne and doing nothing about it.

The BSC’s insurance carrier recently settled the lawsuit with Gibson’s mother, though its conditions have remained confidential. Although the BSC suffered no direct financial liability, the organization is worried that procuring insurance in the future will be difficult and member rates will go up. In response to these fears, the BSC’s executive director and its governing cabinet have drafted a plan to turn Cloyne into a substance-free house. Under the plan, which is scheduled for an official vote by the cabinet on March 6, the BSC would kick out all current residents of Cloyne Court, and never allow them to live there again. New residents would have to sign a contract, pledging to remain substance-free.

Although the idea of a zero-tolerance house sounds like a good idea on paper, it could be a recipe for disaster. There likely will be some students who will sign the substance-free contract in order to jump the BSC waiting list. There also may be students who have struggled with addiction or have a family history of addiction and are hoping that a zero-tolerance house will help them remain sober. And there may be students who sign up because their parents have pressured them into living there.

Such a mix of students could lead to future tragic situations. If a student were to use substances in this house — even a 22-year-old drinking a beer — they would have to hide behind closed doors, away from the in-house BSC manager. And if a student seems heavily intoxicated and really needs medical assistance, a fellow member might hesitate to call for help, worried that their actions could result in eviction for both of them.

I have seen the BSC terminate members who asked for help with dependency issues. The organization even kicked out a member who called 911 for a friend. Although it’s understandable that BSC might need to change policies as a result of previous tragic incidents, it’s wrong to kick out so many students — including those who need help — from their homes. Drug dependency, after all, is a mental disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Is this how we should treat people struggling with a mental health issue?

The BSC plan also ignores the fact that substance use is widespread in this country, especially among young people, and especially on college campuses. Pretending that it doesn’t exist, or that zero-tolerance policies are the best solution, is like solely teaching a horny teenager about abstinence-only sex education. In most cases, it just doesn’t work.

Students’ lives could depend on the BSC making the right choice here. If the BSC actually wants to prevent another overdose — and not just to protect itself from a future lawsuit — then the organization should adopt policies that provide real resources to students at risk for substance-abuse problems.

The BSC, for example, could bring together members of Cloyne Court with Al-Anon, which provides assistance for people who are dealing with the effects of someone else’s drinking, and teaches them ways to take care of themselves while supporting their friends.

But that’s just one suggestion. The BSC needs to have a broader dialogue about substance abuse in the cooperatives, on campus, and around the country. For this reason, residents of Cloyne have drafted a petition to extend the conversation about this issue for another thirty days. Even though enough member signatures were gathered, the president of the BSC, without consulting the governing cabinet, chose to ignore the petition and go forward with the vote — a direct violation of BSC policy.

The BSC needs to listen to its members and craft preventative non-punitive policies in regards to substance use. I am tired of seeing young people in need being vilified, kicked out of their homes, or thrown in jail for problems that could have been prevented with a more knowledgeable community and professional support.

Disclosure: I left Cloyne after a couch in my room was burned by a cigarette ember. Due to BSC policy against smoking indoors, the organization terminated my contract to live there. Luckily, the damage was minimal, and I regret that it happened.


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