The arrest this week of 96 suspects on drug-related charges, including 75 students, after a six-month sting operation at San Diego State University is shining a fresh spotlight on the issue of growing substance abuse at America's colleges and universities.
The incident also highlights the growing sophistication of on-campus drug sellers and the need for university officials and police to broaden their response capabilities to meet the growing challenge.
"The drug problem on American campuses has become so extensive that more and more university police are finding they don't have the manpower to fight it by themselves," says Joseph Califano, founding chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA). He says the stakes have risen in recent years with so many more hard drugs being used and sold. Local university police have noticed a big uptick in the numbers of related crimes, such as fights, robbery, property damage, and vandalism.
While the proportion of students who drink and binge has remained constant from 1993 to 2005, rates of daily marijuana use have more than doubled during that period, and use of other illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin have risen 52 percent, according to a CASA study. Just under half of full-time college students indulged in illegal drugs, the study found.
Increasingly in recent years, and especially since the shootings at Virginia Tech last year, campus police at colleges and universities have forged better links with law enforcement.
Coastal Carolina University and Horry-Georgetown Technical College announced last week that they will work with a state court to develop a task force focused on local crime. The idea was prompted by a raid by local and state law officials in which three university students were charged with drug-related crimes.
Southern Methodist University last summer beefed up its own police department and started meeting every three months with Dallas police and a North Texas federal drug force. The hope is to come up with better ways to respond to on-campus challenges such as drug sales.
"We have been encouraging our campus security institutions to be more proactive with safety and security in reaching out to other law enforcement entities," says Steven Healy, director of public safety at Princeton University and immediate past president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. The organization encourages strong relationships with the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other federal entities. "We are trying to get campuses to ramp up readiness and resources by planning and sharing in diverse ways."
In the run-up to this week's massive raid at San Diego State, campus police began investigating the cocaine overdose of a female student a year ago. They found such a large network of student traffickers that they approached the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for help. "For an agency our size, it was difficult to devote the resources we needed," says Lt. Lamine Secka of the university police. "The DEA was great." Undercover DEA agents infiltrated a drug ring that stretched to seven fraternities. Authorities seized more than 130 drug purchases as well as weapons and $60,000 in cash.
Some parents and drug groups criticized the raid. The DEA "should be targeting large-scale traffickers and distributors," says Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the Drug Policy Alliance in southern California. "Sadly, though, many of the college students arrested will have their prospects dimmed and will spend the rest of their lives being discriminated against for a felony drug conviction."