Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.
When I went to college (the first time), I left my home in Central New York to attend a Franciscan College near Albany, the state capital. With a scholarship in hand—and a career in the medical field on my horizon—I was confident in my ability to succeed in the classroom. Being away from home for the first time, however, forced me to confront a much bigger fear: negotiating a safe, healthy, and productive college social life. My biggest worries were alcohol and drugs.
Fearful of parental reprisals, school sanctions, and, of course, a life of crime and addiction—all lessons that had been reiterated ad nauseum during the “Just Say No!” era, I had sworn off all substances during high school. But, facing college and the culture of college drinking made me rethink that approach. I decided that I was going to have to try alcohol at some point, and I didn’t want it to be my first week on campus. So, a week before my arrival, I had my first alcohol experience with a friend at a different college.
I really enjoyed myself.
While not discounting personal choices along the way, or my general naivete, the influence of a life-long exposure to anti-drug messages during my formative years severely limited my awareness of available options when making those choices. Instead of pursuing a more healthy and appropriate relationship with drugs and alcohol, I learned how to conceal my use (and my real age) from various college and community authorities. I also learned how to concentrate my use to make the evasive efforts worth all the trouble. And with respect to marijuana, the strict prohibitions of use on campus (which involved immediate removal from campus housing) encouraged my friend group to learn how to drive around town high, hotboxing the car as we went.
I didn’t last very long at that institution. I had not noticed until recently that the mixed messages we received on campus further complicated decisions about alcohol use. Having received national recognition as a party school the year before my arrival, the college instituted a mandatory binge drinking educational program. For the first few weeks of the term, students were required to attend weekly evening classes where they taught us about dangerous drinking habits. Meanwhile during orientation, we were taught a “fight song” that included the line, “we’ll drink six friars to the grave.”
This past summer, as marijuana became legal in my state, I’ve been forced to reckon with an important lesson that I failed to learn from that experience. As someone who has taught drug history and who studies the history of marijuana use, I often find myself in a classroom conversation about drug use. I can sometimes feel the curiosity from my students wondering about my own history of drug use. I imagine conversations outside of the classroom among my students, and I envision, as they’re grinding through the latest step of their research project, one of them looking up at the group and asking the question, “Do you think he smokes weed?”
But, when I first started teaching my course, marijuana was still illegal in New York State, and there were (and are still) strict prohibitions in place about possession and use of marijuana on campus. Students knew about my opposition to those prohibitions, and, to contextualize them, we spend a lot of time in my course exploring the various contradictions in the War on Drugs. But I always stopped short of proclaiming myself a marijuana user. Part of it was practical; I’m an adjunct instructor, and I thought that any perception of flaunting my drug use might jeopardize my already tenuous employment. But it was perhaps my deeply engrained anti-drug mentality of “talking about it might encourage it” that troubled me the most about keeping that part of my life, one that intersects directly with my life and career, out of the conversation.
To be sure—if I was teaching any other course, this would not be an issue—but those conversations about drug use come up often in my classes. For most of my career, dealing with the discomfort of potentially being dishonest with my students led me to meet my ethical objections halfway, evoking the subtle subterfuge embodied in the setup to one of my favorite Mitch Hedberg jokes, “I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.” And for a few years, I was able to speak about my drug experiences, specifically those that occurred during my younger years (and thus most relevant to my students’ experiences), without needing to reveal (or necessarily conceal) my ongoing use.
The problem is that my interest in drug history from the beginning was a direct result of my own experience with marijuana. My anti-drug education had assured me that experimenting with marijuana would inevitably lead to lack of interest in school/friends/work, and, likely, heroin addiction. After college, I remained a regular marijuana user while earning several promotions at work and three degrees. I certainly won’t attempt to attribute my career progress to marijuana use, but the contrasts between promised and observed results still were curious and left me wanting to learn more about where these anti-marijuana messages came from. This ended up becoming the topic of my Master’s thesis.
And I want to turn those experiences into an element of my teaching approach—to drop the facade that met me when I first arrived on campus. Marijuana is now legal in New York State, and it’s now incumbent upon those of us who know, and who participate in the use culture around cannabis, to communicate with young people in an open and honest way about our use of alcohol and drugs. Many of the readers of this forum are educators, and others are members of their communities in other ways. I’ll not assume that even most of our readers use psychoactive drugs “recreationally,” but I’m sure a few of you do. Consider how your own experiences with drugs have shaped your life and career and share these experiences in productive ways with your students and the young people you come into contact with.