Cornell’s History, All Drugged Up

11 01 2011

So, the latest news tidbit about a Cornell student being caught with $150,000 of heroin has made the news cycles and attracted some undesriable attention toward the university. Which kinda inspired me to look at it in a historical context. It’s what I do.

It’s college. Drugs exist. Some are easier to get a hold of than others. Some are gateway drugs, others are only used by a hardcore group of students. Once in a while, the drug debate comes up in a campus context. The Cornell Daily Sun ran an article about Cornell’s drug culture about two years ago. In the article, it was noted in a 2005 anonymous Gannett survey of students, that of 1,969 respondents, 41% admitted some form of drug or alcohol use in the past 30 days, with 19.8% reporting marijuana use and 4% reporting other drug use.

(with that in mind, considering the university’s undergad pop of about 13, 800, that would suggest 550 users of other drugs, which could include cocaine, LSD and the aforementioned heroin. If [an overly-generous] 50 percent were heroin users, that gives us about 275 students. Which if the street value is correctly reported, than the student was carrying $545 worth of heroin for each user. In conclusion, with that much heroin, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was supplying the entire county).

A similar set of data from 2003 suggests 8 percent of respondents admitted Ritalin/Adderall use without a prescription, and less than 3 percent partook in white lines. Another link on Gannett’s site looks at drug use in 2000, and the rates were largely the same as in following studies (except for hard drugs – those fell a little bit). The article notes that affluent students and students in Greek Life show slightly higher usage rates. Looking at Gannett’s site, if we throw in the more prevalent drugs, tobacco use as defined as at least once in the past 30 days has gone from 21 to 16 percent from fall 2000 to fall 2005. Alcohol use defined as once in the past 30 days has hovered around 75 percent and remained fairly steady through the three studies.

So that’s handy and all, but it’s a smallish sample size compared to the entire student population, and it depends on people answering truthfully. So the numbers could be seen as dubious. Regardless, it’s obvious that students partake in drug use.


Now to look at things in a historical context. Drug use was around well before the university. But in 1865 in little Ithaca, the drugs of choice were generally the alcoholic or tobacco variety. The big drugs in the 19th century were alcohol, tobacco, and to a lesser extent opiates and (in later years,) cocaine. Marijuana was seen as a medicinal drug, not a recreational one (that changed after around 1910). Marijuana use at Cornell was minor prior to the 1960s, which is when it caught on with middle-class whites – i.e. most of Cornell’s student population. It is stayed relatively popular since, even after drug laws became tougher in the mid-1980s. As for the opiates, they would see occasional use throughout the next 100+ years, as opium in the late 1800s, morphine and heroin in later years. Heroin received its first notoriety among students when it caught on with the Beatnik culture of the 1950s.  With the increase of purity (strength) of heroin in the 1980s and 1990s, demand, and addiction, grew. Although, going by Gannett’s survey, usage dropped off somewhat at Cornell after 2000. Tobacco saw steady and common use by all branches of the university’s stakeholders since Cornell’s founding, and became so prevalent that in the early 1960s a person could smoke anywhere but inside Sage Chapel. But, needless to say, that’s not the case anymore.

If Cornell follows national trends, it would be safe to say that cocaine use peaked in the early 1980s, with maybe some sporadic crack use after its introduction around 1985. I would be willing to suspect that the “glamor” of powdered coke was preferable to perceived “ghetto” qualities of its freebase equivalent.

Regarding LSD, Cornellians probably first experienced the drug in the early 1960s. Well, willingly anyway. Two Cornell Medical School professors were part of a government project in the 1950s and 1960s to administer LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs on unwilling participants. It was initially hoped by the military that it could be used like a truth serum, and later studies checked it out for therapeutic qualities on mentally-deficient patients. The drug peaked in the late 1960s and saw another slight rise in the late 1990s, but otherwise has seen a general decline.

Now back to our preferred chemical companion – alcohol. The first students of Cornell would’ve usually consumed beer (liquor was as it is now – expensive) down at one of the saloons in town, and there was no standard policy against drinking (Bishop 210). “Give My Regards to Davy” celebrates this aspect of student life (although I should note that highballs are mixed drinks – scotch and soda water). A Cornell Era report from around 1890 suggests that a couple saloons was enough to serve all students, and drunkenness was uncommon. In the 1910s, drinking was common, but seen as a way to celebrate athletic victories, but drunkenness on campus was seen as grounds for dismissal (Bishop 407-408). Prohibition was a major thorn in the side of students and bar owners, but they found ways around the law – Theta Delta Chi had a speakeasy built into their house when it was built in 1926.  A Cornell Sun article from March 4, 1937 reports that drinking at colleges was on the rise after Prohibition, but that public drunkenness was abhorred. The report was “Students…admire the man who can drink like a gentleman” (pg. 3). It seems that a celebrated culture of binge drinking took off around 1980 – the “Animal House” influence, perhaps. Although underage drinking was supposed to be curtailed by the increase of the drinking age from 18 to 21 in December 1985, that has largely proven untrue.

People age, drug preferences change, but students are timeless.

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2 responses

12 01 2011

FYI Cornell is misspelled in the first sentence.

12 01 2011
B. C.

Well, that was as little embarrassing. Thanks for catching that.

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