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Wrenn GS: Brown’s war on drugs

Fifty years since Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one,” much of America now reflects with horror. The ruthless criminalization of certain substances has entrenched systemic inequalities, ostracized addicts, criminalized recreational users and withheld life-altering medical treatments (e.g., MDMA and marijuana) from those suffering from chronic conditions. A groundswell of nationwide public outcry now calls for a rethinking of America’s drug policy, ranging from harm-reduction programs to outright decriminalization. As of November 2020, 36 states have established comprehensive medical marijuana programs, and 15 regulate its recreational use by adults. In December, a bipartisan majority in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill eliminating marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, paving the way towards its federally unrestricted recreational and medical use. A lasting peace on this front of the War on Drugs appears to be on the horizon.

But not at Brown University, where our administrators now wage their very own war on drugs. 

The Drug Free Schools and Communities Act has long required that universities maintain “standards of conduct that clearly prohibit, at a minimum, the unlawful possession, use or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by students and employees on its property or as part of any of its activities.'' Otherwise facing the loss of all federal financial assistance, the University accepted the lesser evil of compliance with this regulation. Brown’s 2003 Standards of Student Conduct, for instance, duly prohibited the “illegal possession or use of drugs and/or alcohol and/or drug paraphernalia” and the “the illegal provision, sale or possession with intent to sell/provide drugs and/or alcohol and/or drug paraphernalia.” For 16 years thereafter, this policy — with its focus on illegality and compliance — remained essentially intact (albeit spread across four bullet points instead of two).

Unfortunately, the 2019 Code of Student Conduct abandons our longstanding tradition of mere statutory compliance. An addition to §D.7 Drugs declares: “Marijuana is not allowed on campus, regardless of whether an individual is permitted by a governmental authority to use marijuana due to a medical condition.” And, in a wholly new section (§C Scope), the University proclaims that “the Code covers behaviors by all Brown University students or student organizations, no matter where the behavior occurs.” Our University — forbidding the possession and use of illegal substances both on and off campus at all times of year, and forbidding on-campus marijuana use regardless of legality or medical necessity — now far exceeds its legal obligations to DFSCA.

Consequently, we must grapple with whether these policies actually accord with the values of the Brown community — not merely whether they are the lesser, legally compelled evil, second only to losing all federal funding. Do we think that unlawful drug use is so abhorrent that we ought to eject students who puff the devil’s lettuce over break? Are the tenets of our community really so threatened by reefer madness that we must preempt federal drug reform with our own prohibitions? Is our safety so menaced by medical marijuana that we would insist students leave campus before administering treatment? Should I really abandon my empathy towards drug users to appease University administrators?

These are not idle questions. Already, our University has demanded students compromise their altruism under penalty of official sanction. On Sept. 20, 2019, University officials ordered Students for Sensible Drug Policy to permanently cease and desist their longstanding distribution of kits for checking the presence of dangerous adulterants in recreational drugs, on the basis that doing so violated the Code of Student Conduct. Adulterant testing kits themselves are not federally controlled substances and people who distribute or administer them are expressly shielded by Rhode Island’s aptly named Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act from criminal liability or prosecution. An Oct. 18, 2018 headline from Brown’s own news bureau, reporting on the research of Brandon Marshall (associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University’s School of Public Health), states their value plainly: “Fentanyl test strips prove useful in preventing overdoses.” Nonetheless, the Student Activities Office alleged, without evidence, that the mere availability of test kits encouraged illegal drug use — an apparent offense of “collusion,” i.e., “knowingly or recklessly aiding, abetting, assisting or attempting to aid or assist another individual to commit a violation of the Code.”

Brown University is degraded by its administrators’ willful ignorance of the science of public health. Their demand that we abandon proven harm-reduction techniques — to the mortal risk of our peers and in the face of our own researchers’ findings — is incompatible with our obligation to the well-being of our community. To categorically ostracize our peers who use marijuana, even legally, even at the recommendation of their physicians, verges on cruelty. This all, for what? Our administrators owe the Brown community a compelling justification for their demands. In lieu of that, we degrade our institution by complying.

John Wrenn MS’18 PhD’21 is a fifth-year doctoral candidate. He can be reached at, where he would be delighted to guide you in the acquisition and administration of drug adulterant testing kits. Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to


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