Message to Drug Users

DRUGS are illegal. No one is above the law. This was the dual message sent by local and federal officials in an unprecedented drug raid at the prestigious University of Virginia last week. Three fraternities were seized at the school founded by Thomas Jefferson, and 11 students were arrested by federal agents called in by Charlottesville police.

Antidrug messages and law enforcement are strong themes in the South. But the story of the UVA arrests will reach college students and fraternity networks nationwide.

Students who may have previously thought themselves shielded by social privilege or class have been put on notice: The drug war is being fought at all levels of society.

At the same time, the UVA drug raids, with dozens of federal agents and dogs storming three fraternities as if directed by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, offers more a symbolic warning than any kind of serious strategy for dealing with drugs.

The high media profile of the case may also be a little cheap and misleading. The actual "take" from the raid is pathetic - some sandwich bags of marijuana, a few hallucinogenic mushrooms, and several "hits" of LSD. There were no caches of cocaine, heroin, or weapons. No drug kingpins or serious dealers were found when the police searched the fraternities. All evidence shows these were silly college students trying to "be cool" in a peer culture of late-night parties.

An understanding of this culture - while not condoning its excesses - indicates some forbearance is in order toward those apprehended. To prosecute to the extent of the law - 130 years in prison or up to $6.5 million in fines - is overkill.

The surprise at being caught - and having their futures possibly destroyed - has scared many of these kids into abject penitence. The inevitable expulsion from school alone will damage them seriously.

The drug raid at the University of Virginia made the point. Drug use is wrong and harmful. But should students' entire lives be sacrificed for what may be a politicized class issue?

Moreover, it should be noted that while all surveys show drug use lower on campus, alcohol abuse and its ugly effects continue to climb. In one recent study, underage kids in Washington, D.C., were able to buy beer illegally in 97 out of 100 attempts. How about more realism about the intoxicant that is truly out of hand on campus and among American youth in general?

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