Higher education: GU and GWU’s drug policy divide


On the night of September 8, 2009, George Washington University Police Department officers responded to a suspicious odor coming from freshman Simon Abrahms’s dorm room. After a search which, according to a Metropolitan Police Department report about the incident, revealed a “large amount of U.S. currency, green grasses substance, scales and small zip lock bags,” MPD officers arrested Abrahms. Less than a month into his college career, the 18-year-old was expelled from GWU.

A little more than a month later, a Georgetown freshman who spoke to the Voice on condition of anonymity, returned to his dorm room, where he had recently smoked marijuana, to find Department of Public Safety officers waiting to question him about a suspicious odor. His process followed a strikingly different path than Abrahms’s.

After being taken immediately to the DPS Office below Village C, the Georgetown student answered some questions and filled out a statement. He was later notified of the punishment for his first-time violation: a meeting with his Hall Director, eight sanction hours, an essay, a fine, and a meeting with Dr. Patrick Kilcarr, director of the Center for Personal Development and a faculty member at the School of Nursing and Health Studies.

Although Abrahms possessed a significantly greater amount of marijuana than the Georgetown student did when he was confronted by UPD, the difference in the severity of their punishments owes more to their respective locations. Unlike at Georgetown, drug-related suspensions are not out of the ordinary at GWU. The difference reflects GWU’s harsher drug policy and enforcement strategy.

Georgetown and GWU are often lumped together as similar institutions, with comparable student bodies. But the numbers don’t lie. Since 2003, Georgetown has witnessed four drug-related campus arrests, a figure remarkably lower than GWU’s 43 in the same period. In fact, Georgetown hasn’t seen a drug violation serious enough to warrant MPD involvement since 2005.

“DPS works on occasion with MPD regarding drug cases on campus; most cases are ones of minor possession, however, in which DPS documents the cases via an incident report that are then forwarded to the Office of Student Conduct for their attention,” Joseph Smith, Georgetown’s associate director of Public Safety, wrote in an e-mail.

GWU’s University Police Department, however, is much less reluctant to work with MPD in enforcing drug violations.

Officials from UPD did not respond to e-mails inquiring how they determine when to work in cooperation with MPD regarding possible drug violations. Assistant Chief Frank Demes said that UPD Police Chief Dolores Stafford “purposefully did not respond” to e-mails because “anything [UPD] says could be turned against her administration.” When asked to comment on the matter, Demes declined and instead referred requests to the Office of Media Affairs.

In an e-mail, Michelle Sherrard, George Washington’s director of Media Relations, wrote that, “The George Washington University abides by the laws of the District of Columbia and the country in regards to drug possession and drug use.”

Last October, MPD launched a drug raid on a Foggy Bottom townhouse that yielded five George Washington student arrests. The Hatchet reported that “police seized $1,171 in cash, three plastic bags of a substance that tested positive for cocaine, about 160 grams of marijuana, a scale, and plastic baggies, according to police reports and court documents.”

That kind of spectacular action is rarely seen on the Hilltop, where students who commit drug violations are much more likely to be referred to DPS and receive housing probation or counseling than spend the night in a jail cell.

Even the number of DPS’s “on-campus referrals” is much lower than UPD’s “drug law violations referred for disciplinary action.” Since 2003, Georgetown has witnessed 158 referrals, compared to 704 at GWU in the same period.

GWU does have a larger student body than Georgetown, but the difference is not large enough to explain such a disparity. There is a philosophical difference in the way the schools handle drug violations—a difference made clear by their respective student conduct codes.

The minimum penalty for a first time violator at GWU is a $50 fine, mandatory participation in a drug abuse education program, and eviction from his or her residence hall. Any student the University finds guilty of “possession with intent to distribute drugs” automatically receives a one-year suspension.

GWU’s definition of “possession and intent to distribute drugs” is fairly broad. According to its Code of Student Conduct, intent to distribute includes any sale, exchange, or transfer. For example, a student caught giving a friend less than $20 worth of weed is eligible to be suspended for an entire year.

GWU’s definition of “possession and intent to distribute” is broader than the District’s, meaning students who are not disciplined by MPD may still face suspension and eviction. Administrators from George Washington’s Student Judicial Services, the organization that deals with drug violations and hands out punishments, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The university’s drug policy has sparked its fair share of dissent from the GWU student body, peaking in February 2007, when the school’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws sponsored a resolution in the George Washington Student Association Senate, calling for a reduction of sanctions for students caught using marijuana.

The bill, which sought to make marijuana violations less than or equivalent to alcohol violations, eventually passed the SA Senate but was vetoed by then SA President Lamar Thorpe.

Once the bill failed, GWU student efforts to alter the school’s drug policy significantly subsided.

“After all that work, I basically gave it up (as it was then just a few months before the end of the year) and hoped the group would continue the fight,” Greg Hersch, founder and former president of GWU’s NORML chapter, wrote in an e-mail. “It didn’t. My senior year, there were no events in the second semester, and meetings became more and more sporadic.”

Around the same time student activists attempted to reform George Washington’s code, Georgetown’s own NORML chapter considered launching a similar effort.

But that February, then-Georgetown NORML president Taylor Wray (COL ’08) told the Voice that, “looking into the Georgetown Student Code, we found that there is a large spectrum of penalties for both alcohol and marijuana. There wasn’t a smoking gun that we could point at for change.”

Georgetown’s Student Code of Conduct, while not exactly progressive, takes a more nuanced approach than George Washington’s. Drug violations range from Category A to Category C, depending on the circumstances.There is no defined minimum penalty, so incidents can be analyzed on a case-to-case basis.

In a typical case, after receiving an incident report from DPS, the Office of Student Conduct refers the matter to the Office of Residence Life. Students receive a hearing and are usually placed on disciplinary probation. Students are rarely suspended for a first time violation.

“First and foremost, Georgetown attempts to educate,” Judy Johnson, director of the Office of Student Conduct, said. “Now that isn’t to say there are no punitive aspects or sanctions—certainly a student is going to receive sanctions—but the objective is not to remove a student who’s committed a violation, even if it’s drugs.”

If a student is suspected of having health issues with drugs, he or she is referred to Dr. Patrick Kilcarr.

“The purpose of referring [students]to Dr. Kilcarr is to address the student’s health issues. If they need some help, let’s get them the help they need,” Johnson said.

Kilcarr’s philosophy embodies Georgetown’s education-based approach to drug policy—he focuses on individual responsibility and choices rather than lecturing students about their poor judgment.

“Students are sent here and we’ll sit down and talk about their thoughts, about their using habits and what’s going on,” Kilcarr said. “The one question I always ask is—not other people or outside sources—but are they concerned about their drug use, what’s happening with their use, and what impact use is having on their life?”

The anonymous freshman caught for smoking in his dorm room, initially skeptical about meeting with Kilcarr, was pleasantly surprised by his brief meeting.

“Actually I think the meeting with Dr. Kilcarr was the best part,” he said. “When I went down and talked to him, he was very cool about it. He asked me, ‘Do you think you have a problem? Do you think it’s getting in the way of schoolwork?’ I said I didn’t think so.”

The student described the violation as a minor setback in his first semester at Georgetown. He said Kilcarr respected his opinions, telling him that his prior decisions had obviously been good enough to get him to Georgetown.

“My sense is the way we do it, it’s very humane and respectful,” Kilcarr said. “Ultimately it offers our students the opportunity to make a choice. And that’s what I think is important. Not to say you can’t do this and you can’t do that—that would cause a problem.”

Kilcarr also criticized overly harsh policies, which he believes are ineffective and would conflict directly with Georgetown’s greater academic philosophy.

“I really feel that it would cause blowback, that if anybody’s told they can’t do something, even if they didn’t think about doing it, they’re going to want to do it because they’re told they can’t,” Kilcarr said.

“It brings out that adolescent nature of who we are. But if there’s education about appropriateness—is this in your best interest? Is this serving your personal goals or is it keeping you from moving in the direction that you want to—you know, it really feels to me to be in line with what Georgetown’s all about, what the institution’s all about.”

The contrast in drug policy and enforcement at Georgetown and GW, two campuses separated by just a few miles, highlights a broader national debate about what kind of policy is most effective. Indeed, the debate rages on at college campuses across the country.

For now, it appears that schools are moving towards a more education-based approach. That transition appears to be following a national trend in which more and more states are loosening their restrictions on medical marijuana, and the Drug Enforcement Agency has stopped raiding medical marijuana dispensaries.

According to Bill Piper, director of the Office of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, an organization which describes itself as “promoting policy alternatives to the drug war that are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights,” the tide is slowly turning in states and on college campuses.

“The trend the U.S. is going towards is a more health-based approach. You see it in state after state,” Piper said.

“I know there are a number of college campuses where students have been successful in changing the drug policy, at least around the issue of drug overdoses, so that it’s clear if people call 911 because somebody needs help, they’re not going to be kicked out of school or arrested for it.”

Georgetown offers a case study for this approach. The anonymous freshman, although frustrated by his experience, was grateful that Georgetown’s policy ensured that one minor incident didn’t jeopardize his college education.

For normalization advocates like Piper, that’s exactly the point.

“Ultimately, if you’re an institution of higher learning, I think the question should be are people getting good grades, are they completing their assignments, are they doing anything that’s disruptive?” Piper said.

“It makes little sense to arrest or kick people out of school for nothing more than what they put into their own body. For an institution of higher learning to cooperate with the police in that way, it certainly raises issues of the school’s commitment to education.”

About Author

Cole Stangler

9 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Higher education: GU and GWU’s drug policy divide”

  1. Steve Thompson says:

    While it may be true that there are significant disparities in how drugs are handled at GU and GW, your examples in the article are not comparable. You have used two incidents at GW where the culprits were probably dealers (scales in the room!) while your GU example is clearly a user. It’s not just GW and GU that differentiate between users and dealers. Society (and laws) do too. So, the question is, what does GU do to dealers and what does GWU do to casual users? That’s the story (or non-story).

  2. Maura says:

    Just got to say that Georgetown students have the benefit of talking to Dr. Kilcarr, who happens to be an amazing help to students and widely respected on campus and in the community. I don’t think any school has a resource like that!!!

  3. Matt says:

    Yeah, I echo Steve’s criticisms. All the GWU users mentioned in the article are huge dealers, while the GU students are modest users.

    It’s like trying to compare GWU’s and GU’s alcohol poliices by examining the punishment given to a GWU student who made fake IDs for students and a GU freshman caught with a six-pack of beer in his room.

    That having been said, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Judy Johnson, Pat Kilcarr, Dr. Welsh and others and they really do emphasize the Jesuit ethos of cura personalis in dealing with offenders of any type, rather than imposing draconian across-the-board punishments.

  4. md says:

    Georgetown can be harsh with its marijuana related violations as well – I have had friends who were placed into rooms and interrogated, who were lied to in order to get them to confess to drug possession. I’ve also had friends who were caught and given sanctionhours, friends who were caught and given academic probation, and friends who were caught and given housing probation.

    Fact is that there are worse things at georgetown than someone smoking pot and that it’s a waste of time for dops to being using their efforts to collect and terrorize pot smokers. a zero tolerance policy such as GWU’s is inefficient, uneducated, and just plain harmful to both the individual student and the reputation of the school as a place where gradients of punishment and circumstance should inform the conversation.

  5. Steve Thompson says:

    Arguments that law enforcement “have better things to do” on any subject is ludicrous. This argument is made for all sorts of things: better things to do than enforcing underage drinking, speeding, noise, jay walking, blah, blah, blah. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s against the law and against University policy to smoke pot. That means it is part of DPS’ job to enforce that law. They don’t make the rules, they enforce the rules. If the University administration chooses to loosen a policy, they can tell DPS to ignore infractions. Take it up with the administration if you’ve got a problem with it. It’s not DPS’ fault you break the rules and get in trouble for it. It’s yours.

  6. Michael says:

    Steve Thompson – I think md made a valid argument. The point of saying that they “have better things to do” is not to say DPS ought not to do their job; the argument is clearly criticizing the school’s drug policy and not an attack on law enforcement.

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