Opinion: Calvin Administration Should Rethink Zero-Tolerance Drug Policy

Opinion: Calvin Administration Should Rethink Zero-Tolerance Drug Policy

An open letter to all administration, staff and students at Calvin College;

Every year, a number of students are permanently expelled from Calvin College on the basis of marijuana-related accusations. Calvin has a zero-tolerance policy related to these issues, meaning that something as subtle as an anonymous report or an errant Facebook post can lead to hostility from school administration and ultimately expulsion. To be blunt, this policy is a mistake. By marginalizing a community of legitimate scholars based on personal habits, Calvin is not protecting the safety of the general student body; rather, we are ostracizing specific individuals and creating a culture of secrecy and fear. Marijuana has recently come to the forefront of the public eye as more and more states, including Michigan, move towards decriminalization and even legalization of the substance. The purpose of this letter is to spark a dialogue between administrators and students about these issues as well as to bring attention to the fact that legitimate students are having their lives disrupted in no small way as a result of school-wide policy that is as archaic as it is reactionary.

Within the past few years, the national attitude towards marijuana use has changed dramatically even after generations of criminal prosecution. This policy shift is not exclusively propelled by the radical left, as many assume, but has received widespread support from both sides of the aisle. Former US representative and 2008 Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo has stated publicly:

“Throughout my career in public policy and in public office, I have fought to reform or eliminate wasteful and ineffective government programs. There is no government program or policy I can think of that has failed in such a unique way as cannabis prohibition.”

Even clergy members have come forward, not in support of marijuana per se, but in favor of opening up a dialogue on the consequences a zero-tolerance policy has had on society. Steven Foster, a rabbi of Temple Emmanuel in Colorado, spoke on the issue of decriminalization, saying:

“As clergy, we have the responsibility to talk about what policies serve our community best. You do not have to use marijuana — or even approve of marijuana — to see that our current laws are not working.”

Across all fronts the message is the same: prohibition does not work. What it does do is drive marijuana use underground and create criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

Calvin College’s mission is to “equip students to think deeply, to act justly, and to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” On our website, Calvin defines being an agent of renewal:

“After all, what is a vacant lot can become a community garden. What is a muddied river can become a fresh water supply. And what is a broken relationship can become reconciliation in action. With the right lens, and God’s transformative hand in the world, an unsolved problem can become the catalyst for a game-changing solution.”

A zero-tolerance drug policy is a direct contradiction of this and many other statements that appear in Calvin’s literature. Marijuana use among students is clearly an “unsolved problem,” but current campus rules do not allow for reconciliation or God’s transformative hand. In fact, it would seem to be Calvin’s goal to identify individuals who don’t conform with the “ideal student” model and isolate them from the community as quickly and quietly as possible. This approach solves nothing. Calvin College is effectively making enemies out of productive and intelligent students with high potential because they made a bad decision. With one hand, the Calvin faculty promise to treat students as mature adults who are capable of making their own decisions about academics and personal lifestyle, while with the other they threaten humiliation and excommunication for those who use their freedom to make the “wrong” choice. Officially, Calvin’s drug policy is trying to communicate the message “be safe,” but to students who find themselves at odds with campus safety, the message is clearly “don’t get caught.”

This letter is not intended to support or condone marijuana use among students. This letter is intended to highlight the hypocrisy with which the administration has chosen to handle marijuana-related occurrences. There is certainly a generational gap in thinking on the subject of pot, especially exemplified in the tendency to lump marijuana and alcohol under the same heading of “substance abuse.” Calvin College’s substance awareness page describes the health risk of drugs and alcohol use in broad strokes:

“The use of illicit drugs and the abuse of alcohol present major health risks, such as addiction, acute and chronic illness, and death. Other risks associated with alcohol and drug use include impaired learning, violence, injuries, accidents, drunk driving, acquaintance rape, unplanned pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases.”

Let’s break these down. Although anything that feels good is psychologically addicting, studies have repeatedly shown that marijuana is not physically addictive like alcohol or heroin. Likewise, there is no “marijuana poisoning,” and one cannot overdose on marijuana. The “other risks” that are listed are most commonly the results of impaired judgement, usually caused by alcohol consumption. The bottom line is that marijuana and alcohol are very different substances which have very different effects on the human consciousness. How can the student body take on-campus regulation of marijuana seriously if it’s not even clear that the administration understands what the drug is? Comparing marijuana to alcohol can even make marijuana seem like the safe alternative! From day one, Calvin College has made it clear that they want to prepare students who can think intelligently for themselves and make the right decisions based on Christian values and a very good liberal arts education. The zero-tolerance drug policy throws all of that out the window and treats students like high school teenagers who will self-destruct if not supervised constantly.

If this policy is allowed to continue as-is, the only result will be the expulsion of a larger and larger number of legitimate students as the national political landscape moves more towards decriminalization. By refusing to have an open, reasonable dialogue about these types of issues, Calvin is denying itself the opportunity to have a real positive impact on the lives of students who find themselves affected, either directly or indirectly, by marijuana use. It goes without saying that the Bible is in support of reconciliation rather than immediate expulsion. During his ministry on earth, Jesus interacted mostly with sinners, tax collectors and other groups who were marginalized by mainstream society. Mark 2:17 notes Jesus’ response to a Pharisee who asked why he would associate with these degenerates:

“On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

I believe that there is room for sinners, tax collectors and even stoners in the Kingdom of God. If we call ourselves followers of Christ but reject and isolate these marijuana smokers without being willing or open to having an honest discussion, we deny ourselves any opportunity to show God’s love or forgiveness. Calvin College may be able to afford to lose intelligent students because of an antiquated and stubborn position on personal habits, but Jesus cannot. It’s time to be honest with ourselves and realize what areas of the community we could do a better job of supporting. It’s time for a change in policy.