- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) | Marijuana advocates who say pot is safer than alcohol are urging colleges to wade into a hazy debate over whether schools’ tough pot penalties are actually worsening their drinking woes.

They argue that stiff punishments for being caught in a campus dorm with the drug steer students to booze and add to binge drinking, drunken brawls and other booze-soaked troubles.

“You know, when you get high on marijuana you don’t act violent. You just kind of sit there,” said Mason Tvert, leader of a Denver-based group stoking the pot-vs.-booze debate.

His organization, Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation, has helped students at 13 colleges pass measures calling on their schools to set the punishment for smoking pot as no worse than those faced by underage students withalcohol violations. So far, no schools have changed their penalties, he said.

SAFER calls its nonbinding referendum push the “Emerald Initiative,” a play on the Amethyst Initiative more than 130 college presidents signed last year. The presidents want lawmakers to rethink the national drinking age of 21, arguing that current laws drive college drinking into the shadows and encourage binges.

The leader of the Amethyst Initiative, John M. McCardell Jr., president emeritus of Vermont’s Middlebury College, says there’s a big difference between the two debates.

“The fact is marijuana is prohibited across the board. It’s not a matter of age discrimination, as where alcohol is concerned,” he said.

Mr. Tvert argues the pot-vs.-booze question is still a valid debate. “If they’re willing to talk about letting 18-year-olds use a seriously harmful drug, why shouldn’t we talk about whether they should be allowed to use a drug that’s far less harmful?” he asked.

Federal statistics show that college students who drink are prone to binge drinking, drunken brawls, accidents, sexual assaults and alcohol poisoning.

Marijuana’s full effect on college students isn’t as clear.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 1,700 college students ages 18 to 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries, and 599,000 more are injured. The institute also estimates there are more than 696,000 alcohol-related assaults each year - two-thirds of them by students under 21.

On marijuana, the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy says in its “Myths & Facts” report that even a moderate dose can impair driving performance, and that 15 percent of trauma patients injured while driving a car or motorcycle had been smoking pot.

Few schools suspend students caught on campus with pot, said Thomas Workman, chairman-elect of a group sponsored by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators that tracks campus drug and alcohol policies and trends. He’s also an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Houston-Downtown.

More common are policies that remove pot-smoking students from residence halls and allow them to continue their classes, often with some form of counseling to address their drug use.

“We just don’t have a lot of highly successful students who are potheads,” Mr. Workman said.

Mr. Tvert said his group’s marijuana-penalty measure has passed at every college where the question has come to a vote, including Ohio State University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Texas at Austin and Purdue University.


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