Hard Alcohol Ban Implemented Over Summer Session

For the duration of the Summer Quarter, Summer Session administrators introduced and enforced a new alcohol policy prohibiting hard alcohol for campus residences. The sudden shift in alcohol policy, announced by Assistant Summer Session Dean Jess Matthews in an email to students at the beginning of summer, created a ban in dorms on hard liquor—beverages described as having “an alcohol content 20 percent or greater”—regardless of the age of drinkers. The Summer Session move marked a strong departure from the normal alcohol guidelines enforced during the academic year, especially since the policy created a blanket ban on a specific type of alcohol and restricting its use even to those above the legal drinking age.

Although certainly not news to those who lived on campus for the summer, the hard alcohol ban and its implications for the larger Stanford community are still unclear. Assistant Dean Matthews did not respond to interview requests, leaving a number of questions unanswered: specifically, how was the hard alcohol policy enforced, and how did the policy affect high risk drinking and emergency alcohol transports in the summer?  More importantly, are any lessons of the ban applicable to the academic year, and will aspects of the policy be implemented in the future?

A Daily article published during the summer (July 5th) reported that the hard alcohol ban was solely a Summer Session policy and would likely not be implemented in the coming academic year. All indications are that this is the case. As Ralph Castro, Associate Dean of Student Affairs and director of the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education explains, “that policy was a Summer Session policy.” Furthermore, Dean Castro states that the OPAE, which implements and enforces the University’s overall student alcohol policy, only “advised Summer Session staff on technical wording” and thus was not involved in implementation or oversight.

On the one hand, the hard alcohol ban appears to be a short-term policy, implemented to deal with the special circumstances of the summer— from a large, non-student and youth population on campus to the reduced campus monitoring ability of administrators. However, the summer session policy also clearly reflects the University’s growing concern with hard alcohol on campus and its attempts to address its misuse in the past few years. In the new Student Alcohol Policy document, drafted in 2011 as part of an effort to revamp Stanford’s approach to high risk drinking, a specific reference is made to preventing hard alcohol misuse. Furthermore, a 2011 Student Activities and Leadership office report titled “How Does Stanford Measure Up on Alcohol” considers the efficacy of tactics like banning hard alcohol at comparable universities like Washington University in St. Louis and Bowdoin College.

The University has focused its attention on hard alcohol largely because of the correlation between distilled liquor like vodka/tequila shots and high risk drinking situations and emergency transports. “It is not the substance that is the problem, it is the behavior around the substance that is concerning,” Dean Castro said. “Last year 69 people went to the Emergency Room due to alcohol poisoning.  Every one of those students ended up in the ER because they had too much hard liquor in the form of shots at some point in the night.”

Although the need to reduce transports is certainly something that both administrators and students can agree upon, the Summer Session’s hard alcohol strategy did create controversy on campus because it marked a significant departure from the prevailing alcohol norm. Indeed, the hard alcohol ban appears not only to reverse the generally accepted “open door policy,” to the surprise of many students on campus, but also to challenge the fundamental ideal of the official Student Alcohol policy (https://studentaffairs.stanford.edu/alcohol/policy) that “students are responsible for making their own decisions and accepting the consequences.”

To that point, Dean Castro asserts that the approach of the OPAE in the coming year will be an emphasis on student engagement. “We will do this through town hall meetings, focus groups and larger scale programming meant to give students a change to grapple with how alcohol influences our culture.” Although it is unclear how the lessons of the hard alcohol ban will affect the OPAE and its mission, Dean Castro emphasizes the importance of dialogue in addressing the relationship between hard alcohol and high-risk drinking/ER transports. As Castro states, both a “personal/individual and a collective component” are necessary to “addressing alcohol use on campus.”

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