Are Campuses Saying "No" To Drugs?

The Drugs-Free School and Campus Act, explains Eric Davidson, came out of a very different culture, at a time after the Reagan administration was saying “no” to drugs, and at the tail end of an era of an 18-year old drinking age. That does not mean that the Drug-Free School and Campus Act is out-of-date; instead, it means that it has evolved and changed, although the purpose for creating healthy college environments remains the same.

Davidson currently serves as the Associate Director for the Eastern Illinois University Health Service where he has overseen health promotion efforts for nearly two decades. He also serves as the Director for the Illinois Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Other Drug, and Violence Prevention where he oversees training and professional development for student affairs practitioners implementing campus substance abuse programming throughout the state of Illinois.

In this Campus Law Considered podcast, Davidson offers frank assessments about how well drug and alcohol policies are faring on various campuses, and where they are falling short. Davidson possesses a Ph.D. in Health Education from Southern Illinois University, and a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Eastern Illinois University.

Eric Davidson: How Well Are Campuses Creating Healthy, Substance-Free Environments, and Where Can They Improve?

PB: I want to start with the Drug Free Schools and Campus Regulations, obviously the name says a lot, but can you just give a real basic explanation of what this is supposed to do and a little bit of history?

ED: Okay. The regulations were actually created in the mid-'80s, during the Reagan Administration, so I think contextually it's important to think about what was going on in prevention at that time. We had been focusing on the war on drugs for about 15, 16 years that President Nixon had started and looking at that Act historically. Policy, monitoring, enforcement had always been a strong component of our work in prevention.

When the Act was passed, there are only three components to the Act. The first is that everybody on a college campus, whether it be faculty, staff, or student, would get notified every year based on the university’s policies regarding substance abuse. Some information about drugs that would be commonly used, resources that were available on and off campus for students, staff, and faculty to access if they were having difficulty with substances, and a few other things.

The other two components is that the campus would implement a program designed to prevent possession, use, distribution, manufacturing of alcohol and other drugs on the campus. And then the third component would be that on a biannual process the campuses would review their comprehensive substance programs really to determine what was going well, what was not going well, and what they should focus on in the next biannual period.

PB: Okay. And over, you know, over the 25 years or so, has any one of those components become more or less important in terms of the practice of the Act or the regulations?

ED: Yes and no, and it's a hard question to answer in that the regs really haven't changed. They haven't been revised, they haven't been updated since they were really created in the mid-'80s. I think probably what has changed is not the letter of the law but the spirit of the law. And the spirit of the law would say that we look at our comprehensive programs, we look at our policies, we look at our programs, we look at our interventions, we look at our strategies, and we really try to adopt an evidence-based approach where we're doing things that actually have been shown to work and have an impact on our college students.

And even taking that a step further, when we're implementing things on our campus that we're collecting data to make sure that the interventions and the policies and the programs actually fit the uniqueness of our culture, our students, our campus, our campus community environment. So I think, as the field has evolved, the spirit has evolved, but the letter still remains consistent and sometimes that creates some conflict.

PB: I want to get back to the evidence-based approach in a moment, but I still think it's interesting that the, for lack of a better word, the audience, the students themselves, and to a degree faculty, that the audience has really changed as well over these past 25 years. I mean, it's a much different attitude. When the regulations were enacted, drinking age was by and large 18, and that's changed. How have students’ attitudes towards drug and alcohol has changed and how has that affected the ease or the difficulty with which these policies and these practices are promoted?

ED: Well, I think attitude is always ebb and flow. And when you look at a particular campus, a campus student’s attitude may be very different than one that the national norm would be. So I always recommend for campuses to be collecting data to figure out where your students are and what they're thinking and what they're doing, because it may be difficult to follow state or national trends because your population may be far different than that aggregate body.

I think when you look at the implementation of the Act, many of the students who would have been in college in the early '90s had really grown up with this prevention mentality. Many of the children of the '80s and '70s were going into college in the '90s had really grown up in the Just Say No period. And I think with the large focus on prevention during the '80s, that definitely impacted their attitudes and their values and their beliefs about substances. So I would say we probably had far more conservative values and beliefs in the '90s.

As time passed, there had been less focus, less effort on substance abuse prevention, other health topics, other priorities drew some of the federal dollars and the state monies. So I think over time some of those values and beliefs probably became a little bit more liberal, a little bit more permissive. Interestingly, with the millennials coming to campus, we started seeing some more conservative attitudes and beliefs regarding substances. Students were coming to campus and not using as much, not using as frequently.

Had an opportunity to review some of the national core data for the past ten years, and when I looked at some of the key value statements that we look at within the field, there was really very little change. And if there was any change, the change really seemed to be more positive, non-use attitudes. So, in some ways, I think we've seen ebbs and flows, but more recently, I think we've had some consistency.

PB: Yeah, I mean, that is really interesting. I mean, in its most simple terms you would think that you're either positively reinforcing habits or you're punitively reinforcing habits. I mean, is that correct that there is a balance there and that you've seen that balance change over the years?

ED: Have I seen a change? Can you rephrase that question a little bit . . .

PB: Yeah. Yeah. Let me rephrase it in terms of, is the, are the regulations, are they more about encouraging positive behavior or are they more about being punitive to discourage behavior?

ED: Okay. I think they're a little bit of both, and I think one of the differences between the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act, when we compare it to the Clery Act or VAWA is that the Drug Free Schools Act is very vague and very ambiguous. So I think each campus has some latitude to determine whether or not they're going to be more on the punitive side or they're going to be more on the programmatic side.

I think when we think of best practice, and I think when we think of a comprehensive substance abuse prevention program, my personal belief is that you've really got to have both sides of the fence. A campus has to have strong policies, those policies have to be consistently enforced, they have to be monitored, and the students who are receiving sanctions really need to be consistent.

And a great example would be on a campus with a residential system. If Residence Hall A students get violated, have violations for minors in possession, and they get nailed to the wall, but then Residence Hall B gets off with a slap on the wrist, there are some inconsistent enforcement and sanctioning there, and that doesn’t really help the campus move forward.

When it's consistent and students in both residence halls know that they're going to end up getting the same sanction, I think students take that policy and the possible consequences a little bit more seriously. Having said that, I think it's very important to have programming. I think it's very important to have interventions that look at position behavior and reinforce position behavior. We have a significant population of students who abstain from alcohol or are really low-risk users and don’t use very frequently, do not use a lot of alcohol when they are drinking. They're doing the right thing, they're doing the healthy thing, and we really need to reinforce that.

I think that's where the strength of social norming has really come to impact higher education. We have been able to tell those abstainers, we've been able to tell those low-risk users that they're not alone and that they truly represent the majority. And the majority of our students are either not using alcohol or are using alcohol responsibly.

PB: Okay. And, excuse me, that seems really interesting. I mean, you're obviously talking about some of the best, you know, best practices here. How are, and going back to earlier, talking about evidence-based approaches, how are you finding out that these are the best practices in terms of, are you serving students, you know, this is sometimes behavior that students may not want to be forthright about. How do you, how are you discovering what these best practices are?

ED: Well, I mean, a lot it really is applied research when it comes to health promotion and prevention. You know, as a nation, we've given substance abuse a lot of focus and prioritization over the years, so over time we've really been able to do a lot of research in the field with college students, looking at individual interventions, looking at group interventions, looking at environmental interventions, and really figuring out what has worked and what hasn’t worked.

The NIAAA, one of the governmental agencies, just released within the last two weeks, what they're referring to as their Alcohol Information Matrix. And a body of researchers reviewed all the literature that has been available on college alcohol interventions and really has made a determination of what works and what doesn’t work based upon the research literature that's available. And then they've added several other dimensions, such as ease of implementation, cost of implementation, the types of training that would be required to implement it, and they have really produced a nice package that provides some insight as to what works and what really doesn’t work. And then that tool allows schools to kind of pick and choose what would be best for their culture and their climate and the resources that they have available.

I kind of wish many of the other areas of health promotion in college health had evolved and advanced to the point where we would have such a nice tool that would allow us to pick and choose what really does have an impact on our college students. And hopefully that will be coming for some of our other areas.

PB: Yeah, I mean, the matrix sounds like an incredibly powerful tool and resource. Can you talk about what sort of access school administrators have to that, or how can they, how do they get access to that?

ED: Yeah. That is a free resource. And as I said, it was just recently released by the NIAAA. The NIAAA has indicated that they would be sending notice of that particular tool to all senior level administrators. So what I would recommend is that, when they get that letter, that they spend some time looking it over and reading it rather than just passing it on to the person who's responsible for prevention on their campus.

For those that may not want to wait for the letter, they could go to the NIAAA’s college drinking prevention website which is at And they're, they've got some great resources, some good PowerPoints about the tool. They’ve broken it up into individual and environmental strategies, some worksheets. And the nice thing about this tool is, if you click on a strategy, they kind of have different tiers based upon the cost of a strategy, and then the effectiveness. And if you click on a particular intervention, it gives you some preliminary information, and then there are additional links so you can look at the resources and the references that the evaluation was based upon from the research that was available.

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PB: And this sounds like a hugely forward, I mean, certainly one of the complaints about the Drug Free School Act has been the vagueness, both in terms of its accountability but also in terms of its instructions for implementation.

ED: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, very much so. Particularly for those people that are very familiar with Clery. You know, Clery Act, if we look at the guidance and the documentation that the Department of Ed has made available, it's this several-hundred-page document, it's very thorough, it's very prescriptive, it's very definitive and tells you exactly what you can and what you can't do. The last document that we have for the Drug Free Schools Act is a Compliance Guide that was put out by the former National Higher Education Center in 2006. That document had been revised from a document that had been created in 1997.

So, you know, we're looking at a document that in some ways is almost 20 years old, and that document, the '97 document, was only about 40 pages and the 2006 document I think probably was about 80 to 90 pages, and that even included reference to the Act and a few examples of policy and annual notifications. So we're unfortunate that we have an ambiguous Act, but I think that was by design and intention.

I think in the '80s, the legislators knew that they would not be able to fund alcohol prevention through federal funds, and that was kind of part of the compromise. We’ll leave it ambiguous and leave it up to the schools to figure out how to best meet the guidelines.

PB: Has that ambiguity though, has that led to school administrators sometimes not taking this as seriously?

ED: Very much so. Very much so. I think the ambiguity has not helped. I think the fact that the Department of Ed has not really monitored or enforced compliance, especially in comparison with the Clery Act and what seems to be coming down the trail regarding BAWA, you know, the big stick of the Drug Free and Schools and Campuses Act is that, if you're not in compliance, the feds could take away all of your federal funding, your financial aid, any federal research grants that you have, and they might even also ask you to repay those funds.

And since the Act has been in play, I'm not aware of one institution that has ever had their funding taken away. I have given a training on the topic in my state, and I had one vice president who essentially stood up at the beginning of the training and said, if you're not here to tell me how I'm going to be sanctioned, how I'm going to be fined, or how I'm going to be put into jail by not complying with this Act and doing these things, this day is probably going to be a waste of my time.

PB: And how do you respond to an attitude or a statement like that?

ED: Luckily, I think the Department of Ed has been taking Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act a little bit more seriously. There was a federal General Office of Accounting audit that more or less found that they had not been monitoring it, they had not been asking about it when they had been coming to do audits. And I'm hearing from schools across the nation that, when the auditors are coming, they are asking to see materials, that they're asking questions. Some auditors are spending a great deal of time and asking for additional materials even before they come to visit.

So I think the culture is changing. I think we're seeing some increased monitoring. I think we're seeing some increased enforcement. I'm aware of at least one community college, and then one small private liberal arts college, who have been in mediation with the Department of Ed for quite awhile, several months, if not years, because they were found not to be in compliance with the Act. So I think the Department of Ed is beginning to take it more seriously.

I don’t believe they're financially sanctioning folks. But I think if they're finding people who are noncompliant, they are definitely looking at mediation and corrective action plans and trying to get those schools to really do the right thing and to engage in best practice.

PB: And what would it take for the Department of Education to really ramp up the monitoring to a level that you would think is sufficient?

ED: Well, definitely I think when they come to campuses and they audit financial aid, spending a significant amount of time asking questions, reviewing documents, making sure that at least the letter of the law is being followed. I think the next step would be making sure that those who are doing the audits really have an understanding of college substance abuse prevention and what is best practice, what is not best practice, and really kind of what's effective and what's not effective.

When I've talked to people who have been audited, many have felt that it's just really regulatory, it's very compliance, it's just kind of going down a checklist. So it's really saying, have you done this, have you done this, have you done this, rather than how well have you done this and do you have any evidence of what you're doing is having an impact on changing the alcohol and substance abuse culture of your campus.

PB: Eric, just a couple more questions. You've been, this has been really insightful about the Drug Free School Act. A very specific question, you know, really relating to schools in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, how or is legalization of pot complicating matters at all?

ED: I think complication is probably the best word. Marijuana is still scheduled as a Schedule 1 federal drug, which basically means that it's dangerous and there are no medicinal purposes of the drug. So really for campuses in those states that have legalized marijuana, and even those states that have legalized medicinal marijuana, campuses are still required to abide by the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act, which basically means they're not to allow possession, use, distribution, manufacturing on college campuses.

So I mean, it really has complicated things. In some ways, it would be nice to say, let's keep things simple, this is how we respond, but we also know that our students go off campus. So I think it's pretty clear, black and white, what we need to do for on-campus use, but when our students go off campus that is where the complications occur.

PB: When a . . .

ED: Some campuses where it has been legalized, particularly I think in Colorado, where you have to be 21 to be able to use it, those campuses are regarding off campus use similarly to what they would refer to alcohol use off campus. So, yeah, it's still evolving and we'll see where it goes. But the real rule is, based upon the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act, we really should not be changing our methods based upon what's going off campus.

PB: You were speaking earlier about some of the culture which the Drug Free School Act came up through the political culture and the general attitude. It is interesting to look that the drinking age has gone from 18 to 21, certainly you've had a couple generations of students that have gone through those rules. The attitudes about drinking and driving have certainly gotten much more serious, yet here you have a cultural cue that's saying that smoking pot is okay, you know, and that would seem to be complicating matters, to reuse that word, as well. Not just the letter of the law, but there's seems to be spirit of the attitude, does that . . .

ED: Yeah.

PB: . . . make it more difficult?

ED: I think so. What I'm hearing and what I'm seeing a lot of times is, you know, the students are very savvy as to local ordinances and state laws. And then when they come to campus, you know, for example, they're used to one as occurring off campus and then suddenly the rules have changed. So, you know, part of it is navigating these real or these imagined boundaries and trying to figure out what is acceptable and where it is acceptable and where it's not.

I know some of my colleagues have had some real challenges because, you know, we'll have a student who comes to campus, they'll have a medical prescription for marijuana, it seems to be a legitimate accommodation based upon the information that's presented. But because marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug, its use and accommodations related to its use are not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. So that right there is a great example of trying to figure out, how do we maintain the letter of the law but then how do we also do the right thing, and then how do we also serve the interest of the student.

PB: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I just want to wrap up with a much more general question, but is there one or two pieces of advice you could give school administrators to enacting successful policies?

ED: Sure. I mean, I think the most important thing is is to really collect data on your campus and collect data from a wide variety of sources. Many campuses will do a needs assessment survey, particularly the Course(?) Survey of the National College Health Assessment or a homegrown survey. There are many other data sources, whether it be from your admissions data, your health service, or your counseling center. Even some of the alcohol and other drug data from the Clery Act would be a good reference.

But really get a feel for what is going on on your campus. And if you can develop a partnership with your local municipality, getting some of their data, such as law enforcement records, ambulance transports, those types of things, to really get a feel for what is happening on your campus in particular. I think the other two pieces which are really hand-in-hand is really figure out, based upon your culture, your climate, your students, what are the evidence-based, what are the best practice policies and programs that you can offer and make available. And then just not resting on the fact that you're implementing something that's evidence-based or best practice, but you're actually evaluating and assessing it and collecting some data along the way to make sure that the changes and the tweaks that you're making are actually working.

PB: Eric, thank you so much.

ED: Thank you.

PB: I really appreciate you taking the time, this has been very insightful.

ED: Thank you, I appreciate that.

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