TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For students at the University of Alabama who use marijuana, life can change dramatically overnight.
That’s what happened to 61 UA students when the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force arrested them during a SWAT-style drug raid that began around 3 a.m. on Feb. 19, 2013.
A large percentage of the students collared that day would later be exonerated or found to have committed only minor crimes, such as owning a bong or a couple grams of pot. But they were all subjected to aggressive police tactics, thrown into the Tuscaloosa County jail and the Alabama criminal justice system, and introduced to what many of them now describe as the dark side of modern life at UA.
While the police tactics are highly controversial among UA students and parents, some other Alabama colleges cultivate more protective environments, going out of their way to keep their students from being arrested for having or using drugs.
‘Like a police state’
A freshman at the time, James Blackwood was arrested in his dorm during the 2013 drug sweep. The shaggy-haired outdoors lover was charged with one count each of marijuana and paraphernalia possession, but like many of his classmates he was never convicted of a crime. Still, he and many of the other young people arrested that day had to pay thousands of dollars for lawyers and to participate in expensive drug courses and other diversion programs.
Blackwood said the experience left him and many other students fearing police, angry at the way the narcotics unit and the university treated them, and feeling like “we’re heading toward what seems like a police state” in Tuscaloosa.
“The whole thing was a really intense experience, a really terrible experience for a lot of people because … if it didn’t end up in the charges getting dropped, kids had to spend a lot of money and it ruined a lot of people,” he said.
“A lot of people left the university – one, because of financial issues associated with those arrests and, two, because they just kind of felt threatened, you know?”
But there is another way, which can be found on the hilly campus of Birmingham-Southern College, on the north side of Alabama’s most populous city.
The differences in culture could hardly be more stark than between UA, a sprawling public university campus with top-tier Greek life and football and more than 36,000 students but relatively low tuition; and the pricier, more intimate, private liberal arts school Birmingham-Southern, which has a student body of fewer than 1,400.
The differences between the two schools extend to the crime statistics they report to the federal government each year.
Of the 11 Alabama institutions of higher learning with the highest student populations, UA reported the most drug arrests between 2005 and 2010 with a total of 308, according to a 2011 Birmingham News analysis of crime data reported by the schools over that six-year period.
Between 2013 and 2015, UA reported that 272 drug violations took place on the university’s campus that resulted in an internal disciplinary action or judicial review, and a total of 242 arrests for drug violations.
Meanwhile, though Birmingham-Southern reported 87 drug violations on the campus, it made zero arrests for such violations over the same three-year period. It didn’t make any arrests for drug violations in 2012 either, and that’s no coincidence. It’s a reflection of conscious decisions by campus leaders, and their attitude toward marijuana use.
Those leaders include Birmingham-Southern College Police Chief Randy Youngblood, Dean of Students Ben Newhouse, Vice President of Student Development David Eberhardt and Communications Director Hannah Wolfson, who all sat down for a joint on-campus interview with AL.com in December.
“Philosophically for a first-time marijuana offense … we try to treat that as educationally as possible,” Newhouse said, explaining that students’ parents would be notified, and that they would probably have to take a drug course and write a paper. “If they were to have a second offense, they would face suspension.”
But they would almost definitely not be arrested or passed along to another law enforcement agency. Nor would they be for most any other drug crimes short of large-scale dealing, according to Youngblood, who has been with the force 32 years and said he has never made a drug arrest at the school.
“If we found just a roach or something in a car, we may treat that differently than finding a gram or this or that,” he said. “And again none of those (low-level marijuana crimes) would constitute an arrest.”
‘The entire picture’
UA has made a push in recent years to try to find ways to keep students who commit low-level marijuana violations out of the criminal justice system, instead directing them into diversion programs aimed at rehabilitation.
But dozens of students continue to be arrested for drug crimes on the university campus each year. In 2015, UA reported 111 drug arrests, up from 70 in 2014 and the 91 in 2013. And law enforcement officers are increasingly convincing UA students arrested for minor marijuana crimes to serve as drug informants, sowing distrust among students and between the student body and law enforcement.
In response to questions about the school’s approach to drug use, UA spokesperson Monica Watts said it is important to “look at the entire picture,” emphasizing the size difference between the state’s flagship public university and Birmingham-Southern.
“(On) campus, UAPD responds to and investigates cases of illegal drug use when they are made aware of or locate illegal drug activity,” she said in an emailed statement.
“The University is committed to promoting a safe environment for student learning, to foster responsible decision making, to identify or distinguish safe and legal uses regarding alcohol and other drugs, and to inform the campus community of the consequences of illegal and/or inappropriate use.”
Auburn takes a similar approach
Auburn University reported that it made 90 arrests for drug violations between 2013 and 2015. It also reported 91 drug violations that resulted disciplinary action over the period.
The number of drug arrests there fell each year over the period, from 34 in 2013 to 25 in 2015, while the number of violations reported for disciplinary action rose from 14 to 59.
Auburn spokesman Charles Martin provided a brief emailed statement in response to a list of questions about the university’s approach to drug enforcement.
“Marijuana isn’t allowed on campus,” Martin’s statement said. “The City of Auburn Police Division enforces drug violations, and the university offers treatment programs for any student or employee who needs it.”
Impacts on students
As school leaders in Alabama make different decisions about how to deal with marijuana use, the policies and attitudes they adopt have a wide range of impacts on students.
While enforcing drug laws may sound like a no-brainer, experts say that schools need to balance the need to deter drug use and criminality with the sometimes life-altering consequences of a harsher, more aggressive approach.
Jordan Ostroff, a criminal defense attorney in Orlando, specializes in academic hearings over drug use, alcohol abuse and other minor offenses at Florida colleges and universities. A former prosecutor who brought drug cases against numerous students, he now represents many college students who have been caught with marijuana.
He says that if institutions of higher learning truly want to do what’s best for their students then they should not allow first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana to escalate into a permanent stain on a young person’s academic or criminal record.
“With so many of these cases I feel like I’m going from being a lawyer to being a psychologist and talking to the student and saying, ‘this isn’t going to end your life or end your dreams,’” he said. “It’s a crazy concept that 13 years of a kid going through school can be taken away by half a gram of marijuana.”
But Watts, the university spokesperson, said that deterrence is an important driver behind the school’s enforcement practices.
“UA expects its policy and its enforcement will dissuade students from choosing to engage in illegal activity or taking action that may negatively impact their academic success and/or the campus environment,” she said. “It also helps ensure access to treatment and resources for those who need it.”
‘The wrong message’
Asked about his thoughts on the 2013 raid at UA and other programs that law enforcement agencies have used on students – including using a number of them as undercover drug informants – Ostroff said, “it’s a giant scare tactic for them – ‘we’re going to show these kids that nothing is beneath us, were going to scare the rest of them from doing anything like this.’”
But that can have negative impacts on perceptions of the university, as UA students repeatedly told AL.com during its 2015 reporting on the tactics police used against students at UA.
Samuel Major was a sophomore majoring in business at Alabama when he, Blackwood and 59 other UA students were arrested during the 2013 drug sweep. He was charged with two counts of selling marijuana within three miles of a school and a count each of possessing marijuana and paraphernalia. He admitted in an interview with AL.com in 2015 that he sold small quantities of pot to his friends, but says that the experience was so traumatic and disturbing that it eventually led him to drop out and move back to his home state of Florida.
Major ultimately received two years of unsupervised probation under a plea deal. But he also spent more than $20,000 on legal bills and court fees and ended up not earning a degree from UA.
“I’ve come to terms with it, but I ended up leaving school,” he told AL.com in a December 2015 phone interview. “It’s defined me, I guess; it’s made me a better person, I suppose. I learned that bad things happen to good people. I was being stupid at the time and I was 19, but I wasn’t a bad person. I wasn’t selling cocaine or anything.”
Dr. Howard Samuels, a licensed therapist and CEO of The Hills Treatment Center in Los Angeles, said that he has heard many stories like those of Blackwood and Major.
He strongly believes it is counterproductive to students’ well-being to use aggressive police tactics and throw the book at young people accused of relatively minor marijuana violations.
“That approach is wrong. You’ve got to have a treatment approach and an educational approach,” he said.
“To go to the point where you have, for example, informants going around turning kids in, that’s just wrong. You can’t do that; that’s sending the wrong message. You can’t be that harsh because you’re dealing with a mental health issue and you want to have an open dialogue with the students.”