Last week, ten Wesleyan students and two non-students were hospitalized after allegedly taking a bad batch of the drug “Molly” (pure MDMA, the psychoactive ingredient in Ecstasy). A few days later, police arrested four Wesleyan students in connection with the incident. Sadly, this incident is not the first at Wesleyan. In September, Health Services sent out a warning to students and parents when several students who took the drug ended up in the hospital.
In his response to the recent events, the University’s president wrote, “Our community has been reminded these last few days of our fragility but also of our resiliency – of our fears but also of our care for one another.”
Yet, it’s also important to recognize that these kinds of stories can exaggerate the prevalence of drug use on college campuses, and while we should educate and inform students about the dangers of drugs, we shouldn’t do so in a way that reinforces stereotypes about colleges as hedonistic bacchanals.
In fact, Ecstasy use among college students has declined since its peak in the early 2000′s. In 2013, according to Monitoring the Future, 5% of 19-20 and 5.9% of 21-22 year olds reported using the drug in the past year. In 2001, those numbers were 11.0% and 10.8 %, respectively.
The numbers are perhaps higher than parents or administrators would like (and they have risen slightly in recent years), but they are much lower than what many people think. Unfortunately, part of the problem is the gap between what we think is happening on college campuses and what is actually going on.
Take for instance the American College Health Association’s (ACHA) National College Health Assessment, another survey of student behaviors. The ACHA found that 92.6% of students said they had never used Ecstasy and only 1.2% reported using the drug in the last 30 days. But here’s the catch: when the ACHA asked students about how often they thought the typical student at their school used Ecstasy, students thought close to 60% had tried the drug and a brain-frying 35% had used it in the last 30 days.
In other words, there is a huge disconnect between what students think is happening on their campuses and what actually is happening. The danger of this disconnect, according to some researchers, is that these misperceptions can negatively affect students’ choices. Some students might take the drug because they feel pressure to conform to the perceived norm. Meanwhile, students who take the drug may feel less pressure to change, since they think they’re doing what everyone else is.
Indeed, though college binge drinking and drug abuse are the subject of national headlines, evidence suggests today’s college and high school students are in many ways more responsible in comparison to their predecessors when it comes to drugs and alcohol. Olga Khazan, a writer for Atlantic, even dubbed the post-millennials “Generation Straight-Edge.” Two recent surveys on adolescents and college students confirm this view. The American Freshman: National Norms (Fall 2014) found “substantial self-reported drops in alcohol and tobacco use.” And Monitoring the Future reported that cigarette and alcohol use are at their lowest levels in the history of their survey. Indeed, Monitoring the Future found broad drops in drug use among secondary school students in 2014, a promising trend. And these drops come even as today’s students think many drugs are less risky than students have thought in the past.
So, given the publicity around the recent hospitalizations, now might be a good time to inform students about the very serious dangers of Ecstasy — indeed, one Wesleyan student was still hospitalized as of last Friday — but also of the fact that most students choose not to use it.