by Parker Turner, MarenJohnson, and InSoo Lee
Photo courtesy of http://bodechiropractic.blogspot.com
On top of the Cumberland Plateau, where the Appalachian Mountains cross Tennessee into Northern Alabama, a small liberal arts school, The University of the South, sits, isolated from much of the outside world. However, even in this safe haven of academia, known affectionately as Sewanee, certain dangerous trends have taken root. “It’s kind of funny how easy it is.” As he said this, a sophomore male, who wishes to remain anonymous due to the event’s sensitive nature, placed a round, blue pill on the desk in his dorm room. He covered the pill with his student ID card and then pounded it with the corner of his iPhone. The pill disintegrated into a powder underneath. He lifted the card, straightened the powdery blue line, rolled up a dollar bill and, in one smooth motion, snorted the medication into his nose. He pulled back on his cheekbone, trying to dislodge anything caught in his nasal passage and said, “This oughta keep me goin’ for a couple more hours.”
Later that night, in a residence across campus, two boys dropped a Xanax pill into a pint of whiskey in preparation for the night. “Alright, man, let’s one touch this.” Half a minute and a few gulps later, the whiskey was finished and the two boys were headed toward a functioning blackout. A little over an hour later, one of the boys was repeatedly throwing a chair into a wall and a group was restraining the other to stop him from fighting his friend. Neither boy remembered anything the next morning. Only broken knuckles and a wall peppered with holes were left as proof.
Scenes like this, for academic and social reasons, are common not just at Sewanee but in the surrounding community and nationwide. According to the Clinton Foundation, between 1993 and 2005 the number of college students abusing prescription drugs, like Adderall and Ritalin, increased by almost ninety-three percent. College students magnetize to these “study drugs,” especially during high stress situations like finals, to get an extra boost to help them focus and work long hours without stopping. According to the Center for Disease Control, since its release in 1996 prescriptions for the Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) medication Adderall have nearly tripled. With this influx, students find it easier than ever to get access to this and other attention deficit disorder drugs. However, since these drugs are legal with a prescription, there is a grey area when it comes to their regulation. The Dean of Students at Sewanee, Eric Hartman, stated “that’s one of the challenges of the whole genre is there’s legal use of a prescription. There’s recreational use of prescription and kind of inappropriate use of it, and then there’s the kind of sharing it, and then there’s the selling it.”
The Dean of Greek Life at Sewanee, Hagi Bradley (who also has a degree in sociology), explained that this problem is affecting teenagers across the country, “I would definitely say that younger generations are a lot more… numb to the dangers of these drugs. They’re a lot more used to seeing these drugs, using these drugs, going to pharm parties when they’re in high school and junior high.” Pharm parties are characterized by teenagers bringing pills from their houses to add to large, collective bowl. Partygoers then take random from pills from the bowl in a medical Russian roulette. A severe misunderstanding of the dangers of these drugs is a cause for concern as younger and younger people are using prescription drugs for non-medical uses. Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), in 2013, fifteen percent of high school seniors admitted to using prescription drugs within the last twelve months. While the recent decline of other illicit drugs (aside from marijuana) is dropping, according to the NIDA, prescription drugs are taking other drugs’ place.
Down the mountain in more rural areas of Tennessee, general drug abuse has been a problem for decades. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Tennessee leads the nation in meth use as of 2014, and the communities surrounding Sewanee are no different. One local man, who wishes to remain anonymous for legal reasons, described his constant drug use throughout the day, “Meth and pain pills in the morning, followed by a big joint, and a Xanax.” As is the case with many drug addicts, he first experienced drugs when he was seven years old by stealing pills from family members. Although he grew up in a very poor area of Tennessee with a family life vastly different from what most Sewanee students experience, his affection for abusing prescription medications is something he shares with many people on campus.
Even closer to the mountaintop haven of Sewanee is the Blue Monarch, a small, non-profit organization based out of nearby Monteagle, which exemplifies the rampant drug problems affecting the community around Sewanee. This organization provides housing for women recovering from all types of abuse, health issues, Natural Foods, and addiction. However, even this bright spot in a community darkened by drug abuse recognizes shifting trends. According to Susan Brinkley, the director and founder of Blue Monarch, “When we opened in 2003, and for the first 3 years, it was by far meth. But since that time prescription drugs and pain killers have taken that unfortunate place of honor.”
Experts and law enforcement in the area around Sewanee recognize the growing problem as a local trend as well as one that has far reaching effects. The Head Pharmacist at CVS in Monteagle, the only pharmacy in the town, explained that “when I have gone to conferences and spoken with other pharmacists form around the state, we are all seeing a rise in the amount of prescriptions written for drugs that can and are being abused.” Local law enforcement recognizes this problem as well, and while they are working to curb prescription drug abuse’s growth, it is difficult. Assistant Chief of the Sewanee Police Department, Dan Ferguson, explained that this shifting trend from meth to pills has its base in the fact that “prescription drugs are pills and they are legal.” However, he explained that its growth comes from both the difficulty of identifying a person under the influence of pills, giving the user a certain amount of safety, and recent laws making it harder to purchase the drugs necessary to produce methamphetamine. In 2006, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 was signed, making it drastically harder to buy over-the-counter medications that included pseudoephedrine, a drug commonly used to produce meth. The law has contributed to the decline in methamphetamine production because it requires identification for the purchase of such medicine (in order to keep records for the distributor) and set limits on the amount of such drugs that an individual can purchase per month.
The accessibility of prescription drugs makes them attractive to college students as they are abundant and relatively cheap compared to other street drugs. Dean Hagi Bradley has noticed the recent influx of the anti-anxiety drug, Xanax, on Sewanee’s campus explaining, “Xanax is coming in in big, gallon-sized Ziploc bags, and you can buy a pill of Xanax for five bucks or something like that.” Xanax is a benzodiazepine, which helps people suffering from panic disorders by slowing down chemicals in the brain to produce a calming effect. When combined with alcohol, Xanax can produce a functioning blackout like the one experienced by the two students who combined the drug with whiskey. This drug has become so popular that students have created a whole system of lingo surrounding the drug such as “bars” (a normal pill of Xanax,) “sticks” (another term for Xanax,) “queebs” (a quarter of a Xanax pill,) “QB sneak” (the act of dropping a queeb in a willing friend’s drink while he/she is not looking,) and “tron” (a person acting under the influence of Xanax). This familiarity speaks to how extensive the misconception is among college students, and who don’t know about the dangers of using prescription drugs without a preexisting condition that calls for their regulated use. Neuroscience professor, Jessica Siegel, explained that “Prescription drugs such as Adderall are not supposed to be addictive due to the low dose.” However, for students who do not need the drugs, any dosage can cause an addiction.
Even so, there are students like president of the Phi Kappa Epsilon sorority, Alexandra George (C’15) who have begun to recognize the issues that Xanax is causing on campus. George described the drug as an “unaddressed big issue [on campus] and has become worse in the past year and a half. As a senior, it is scary to watch these drugs change how a campus looks,” referencing vandalism as evidence of the issue.
Dean Hagi explained that the school’s administration is well aware of the problem and has been working to address it. As Dean of Greek Life, Hagi held a meeting with the presidents of all the school’s Greek organizations in order to discuss preemptive measures to combat the rapid spread of this drug around campus. The administration plans to implement a student committee that is devoted to spreading awareness about prescription drugs, their effects, and their potential negative impacts on the lives of students. Bradley also clarified that the rising abuse of these drugs has an impact on more than just the students and school. As more people abuse prescription drugs, doctors are more wary to give out prescriptions, even to people who need them, for fear of being labeled as a “pill mill” which is a doctor who gives out prescriptions for drugs to people who most likely do not need them.
But although drug use seems to be something that Sewanee students and people in the surrounding rural communities share, there is more to this issue than meets the eye. According to Professor Gerald Smith, who has taught at Sewanee since 1969, Sewanee students may experience the same basic physical effects that locals do, but there is a huge difference in how these drugs affect students. The necessity of staying in school has meant that the Sewanee student lifestyle is far less conducive to addiction. However, there are still far reaching repercussions for any student who gets too tangled in the drug game. Smith went on to say, “I’ve had students say, ‘I would take any drug anybody gave me just as long as it got me outside of my head, and made it go away.” There are many reasons that students might feel this way, but the most commonly cited is the intense party scene and strenuous academic load. The availability and discreteness of prescription drugs gives them massive appeal, paired with the hard work attitude that dominates campus from Monday through Thursday, leads to drug use that is “highly socialized” as students from all over campus go out after a week of grueling classwork to “play hard.”
As prescription drug abuse becomes more evident at Sewanee, as well as across the country, educators and students alike fear for the futures of people abusing these drugs. Dean Hagi warned people who use, or are considering using, prescription drugs recreationally, saying, “Young people are so reckless with their lives, and they don’t realize that you only have one. And once you mess that one up and once that one’s gone, that’s it. You’re gone. And you’re gonna have an effect on a lot of people when you do that, when you’re gone or when you’re in a rehab center.”