While Oregon sees hundreds of drug overdose deaths a year -- from both illegal and prescription drugs -- a pair of publicity-seeking state and federal prosecutors have made a small Portland liberal arts college where two students have died of heroin overdoses in the past two years the public focus of their attack on the drug trade. Last week, Reed College President Colin Diver was summoned to the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, where he was warned that the school could face a cutoff of federal funds, including student loans, if it is not found to be taking "adequate steps to combat illegal drug activity," starting with this weekend's annual school year-end bash, Renn Fayre, which the prosecutors vowed will be filled with undercover police determined to quash drug use and sales.
In Multnomah County alone, where Reed is located, 63 people died of heroin overdoses in 2008 and 71 in 2009. That's more than one a week for both years. But no other single overdose or pair of overdose deaths has excited the reaction displayed by state and federal prosecutors who went after Reed last week.
Reed makes an excellent target for drug warriors. For decades, the academically rigorous school has had a reputation as a counterculture haven where drug use is accepted. While that reputation is overblown and outdated, students say, it makes the college a handy lightning rod for those engaged in the culture wars.
Enter US Attorney for Oregon Dwight Holton and Multnomah County (Portland) District Attorney Michael Schrunk. In an email to Divers that they asked be forwarded to the Reed community, the prosecutorial pair used the deaths of the two students as a battle cry for a crackdown.
After lamenting the loss of the students, they wrote: "But while now may be a time for reflection and grief, it is also a time for action. It is now time for the Reed community to abandon the myth that drug use is a safe and acceptable form of exploration. It is time for Renn Fayre and Reed to adopt a zero tolerance policy prohibiting illegal drugs flat-out."
It isn't beatnik days anymore, prosecutors wrote, in a bid to appeal to Reed's countercultural heritage: "The illegal drug trade has changed radically since the days when giants like Alan (sic) Ginsberg and Gary Snyder '51 roamed campus here. The fact is that the drug trade is now fueled by one of the most potent forces in the West: greed."
The pair then explained at length how "drug cartels" are "targeting middle class and wealthier kids," then went on to say they made no distinction between non-lethal drug like marijuana and drugs like heroin. "Don't get sucked in by this bogus Siren call. The fact is that if the Reed community insists that this is 'not our problem' and tries to draw distinctions between 'hard' and other drugs, you will send the message that drug use can be safe... It is time for the Reed community to embrace the notion that drug use is not safe and it will not be tolerated -- without fine print, without provisos, and without conditions."
They then issued a blunt warning: "As the top federal prosecutor in Oregon and the Multnomah County District attorney, we have a responsibility to this community -- including you and your families. We cannot, and we will not stand by if drug use is tolerated on your campus. We cannot, and we will not stand by if Renn Fayre is a repeat of years past -- where even in the wake of Alejandro Lluch's death drug use and distribution were allegedly rampant."
Finally, the prosecutorial pair gallantly offered their assistance: "We stand ready to help in any way we can. If need be, we will use all the tools available to us in federal and state law enforcement. We owe that to the people of our community, including you."
A suitably cowed President Diver responded with his own email to the Reed community: "My message regarding drug use at Renn Fayre 2010 is very simple: Do not use illegal drugs. That means no marijuana, hallucinogens, designer drugs, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, or other illegal substances."
Diver said he got a forceful and direct message from the prosecutors: "Shut down illegal drug use and distribution at Reed College, starting with Renn Fayre. Based on ongoing criminal investigations, including conversations with current and former students and other sources, these officials have heard numerous allegations about drug use at Reed, and particularly at Renn Fayre."
Diver also mentioned the threats he received: "In the course of the conversation, the US Attorney pointedly referred to a federal statute that makes it a criminal and civil offense for anyone knowingly to operate any facility for the purpose of using illegal drugs. We were also reminded of federal legislation that allows all federal funding -- including student loans -- to be withdrawn from any college or university that fails to take adequate steps to combat illegal drug activity."
On Wednesday, Diver was forced to clarify. According to Inside Higher Education News, the US Attorney only cited the federal crack house statute, under which Reed could face large fines, not the Drug-Free Schools Act, which is the statute that could impact student loans, Diver said. While the US Attorney "referred to federal legislation that could be applied to the college if it failed to crack down more forcefully," he never cited the Drug-Free Schools Act, Diver conceded.
In his email to the Reed community, Diver also delivered a more immediate warning: "We have been told that, during next weekend's Renn Fayre celebration, undercover Portland police officers will be circulating on campus, uniformed Portland police officers will be on alert to respond immediately to calls, and prosecutors stand ready to process criminal charges."
The prosecutorial shakedown has stirred controversy both on campus and in the broader Portland community, with many defending Reed's students, while others say the "druggies" need to be brought under control. In any case, Reed's reputation has complicated its relations with law enforcement.
"There's always a market here for a 'Reed is strange and weird' story," Bear Wilner-Nugent, a Reed alumnus, one-time director of Renn Fayre, and Portland criminal lawyer told USA Today this week. "I think it's going to scare students using drugs to be more underground. I think it's going to discourage students from seeking help for drug problems. It's a waste of resources on what is a tiny fingernail clipping in the drug problem," he said. "It's showboating."
Wilner-Nugent will be attending Renn Fayre again this year, and he said it compares favorably with end-of-semester parties at other schools. "There's a less macho attitude to it, there is less drinking and so you don't see the sexual harassment compared to other institutions," he said. "They are busting one of the saner and healthier college parties in the nation."
"This is the first time any college president has been threatened with the loss of federal funding because of campus drug use, so that's pretty interesting," said Jon Perri, West Coast coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "We need to be criticizing those prosecutors, as well as law enforcement, for sending in undercover agents and spreading misinformation about drug dealers coming in to target rich white kids. And we need to keep after Reed President Divers, who after his sit-down with prosecutors, basically said don't do illegal drugs, then mentioned a long list of drugs that doesn't include alcohol, which does more harm," Perri pointed out.
"Our chapter there is actively participating in the planning for Renn Fayre, and they will be waging a Good Samaritan policy campaign, while the feds are coming in and trying to do the same old stuff," Perri. "Reed SSDP is trying to pitch it as instead of trying to increase penalties, try something that will save lives."
Perri said he worked with students at Reed to reactivate the Good Samaritan campaign after the second student death. Good Samaritan policies allow drug overdose victims or their friends to seek help without fear of arrest, or, in the case of colleges, academic discipline. "I encouraged them to get it back up and running," he said. "They were wary of starting a campaign because they didn't want to be seen as politicizing those kids' deaths, but that's what the prosecutors have now done."
While by all accounts there has been drug use at Renn Fayre in past years, it is a much milder, less raucous event than many end-of-year campus parties, with a penchant for hallucinogens -- not heroin -- and an abundance of weed. Renn Fayre also features full-body human chess, softball tournaments, a great feast, and lots of music. And alcohol for those over 21.
"Everyone here fears that come Saturday there could be mass arrests for marijuana possession and underage drinking," said Reed SSDP chapter head McKenzie Warren. "It some senses, it's not totally surprising because there has been a lot of local press aimed at Reed, but there is a lot of worry," she reported. "ODs happen all the time, but the homeless population isn't going to get the same focus as a well-known private liberal arts college," said Warren. "Over the years, Reed earned a reputation as a crazy drug-taking school. Maybe it once was, way back in the 1970s, but these days the reputation outstrips the reality."
Reed SSDP is working with other campus groups to protect students from the tender ministrations of law enforcement, Warren said. "We have a number of groups working on harm reduction this weekend, we've had a Reed alumni who is a lawyer come and give talks on how to deal with the police, especially with respect to dorm rooms, and we printed up 1,500 ACLU know your rights cards. We've also been putting up flyers and posters."
And it will push for a full-fledged Good Samaritan policy. "We have only half a Good Samaritan policy," said Warren. "The school just adopted a new implementation plan for our drug policy, and it differentiates pot and alcohol from harder drugs. There is a Good Samaritan policy for alcohol and marijuana, but not for harder drugs. The administration is trying to crack down."
A Good Samaritan policy for alcohol makes sense; for marijuana, the need for it is much less. But a Good Samaritan policy that excludes the drugs that are most likely to kill people doesn't make much sense. There is work to be done at Reed, and the Good Samaritan battle looks like a good way to counter the weight of the prosecutorial offensive.