06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

College Students Nationwide: Allow Marijuana as a Safer Alternative to Alcohol

Students at more than 80 colleges and universities across 34 states held rallies on their campuses this week to recognize April as National Alcohol Awareness Month. At first glance, these events don't appear to be anything out of the ordinary. The message behind them, however, was anything but ordinary.

At the rallies, students called on their respective schools to "stop driving them to drink" and urged them to allow marijuana as a safer recreational alternative to alcohol. In particular, the students argued that laws and policies on and around most college campuses punish students more harshly for marijuana use than for alcohol use, steering them toward drinking and away from using a far less harmful substance instead: marijuana. 2010-04-07-SuffolkNORMLdayofaction-SUNORMLhub1.jpg

Every day college students demand the right to use marijuana, but it's not every day that they do so in an effort to curb alcohol use and abuse. Needless to say, the effort raised eyebrows and generated quite a bit of media attention.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported:

Colleges themselves, organizers say, unwittingly encourage drinking by enforcing zero-tolerance policies against students who are caught smoking marijuana.

Rob Pfountz, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, says that at his campus, penalties for using marijuana are three times tougher than those used against underage students who are caught drinking.

"At the very least," he says, "penalties for marijuana should be no worse than for those against alcohol."

This student makes a pretty good point, as does this one in The Daily Camera:

"As adults, it should be our right to choose," [CU-Boulder student Andrew] Orr said. "It's a safer drug than alcohol, so we should be able to consume it instead if we want and we shouldn't be punished worse for choosing to use one over the other."

Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it's far safer than alcohol for the user and for society. So what is the logic behind laws and campus policies that punish students more harshly for marijuana and send the message that alcohol is more acceptable?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Task Force on College Drinking, each year the use of alcohol by college students contributes to approximately 1,700 student deaths (including several fatal overdoses); 600,000 unintentional student injuries; 695,000 assaults involving students; and 97,000 sexual assaults and date rapes involving students. Yet no such statistics exist when it comes to marijuana, which has never been found to contribute to any deaths, let alone fatal overdoses. All objective research on marijuana has also concluded that it does not contribute to injuries, assaults, sexual abuse, or violent or aggressive behavior.

Along with highlighting the relative safety of marijuana compared to alcohol, students on each of the campuses delivered a copy of the "Emerald Initiative" to their university's president or chancellor.

The Emerald Initiative is a nationally coordinated response to the Amethyst Initiative -- a statement endorsed by more than 130 college presidents and chancellors, calling for "informed and dispassionate public debate" on whether lowering the legal drinking age to 18 would reduce levels of student drinking and incidences of the serious problems associated with it. The Emerald Initiative calls on these same presidents and chancellors -- as well as others -- to support "informed and dispassionate public debate" on whether allowing students to use marijuana more freely could reduce dangerous drinking on and around college campuses.

At this point, the college drinking problem has gotten so bad that administrators nationwide are no longer satisfied simply encouraging students to drink responsibly or promoting "social norms drinking." They are actually proposing a lowering of the drinking age in order to curb dangerous student alcohol use. Now don't get me wrong -- I support this debate; but there's no logical reason why we can't also consider the possibility that allowing students to use marijuana might also result in less (and/or less dangerous) alcohol use.

Some may scoff at the Emerald Initiative, but its no less viable a plan than the Amethyst Initiative, and this is literally a matter of life and death.

For example, take the University of Maryland -- home of President Dan Mote, one of the most vocal supporters of the Amethyst Initiative:

The group chose to demonstrate outside the administration building because of its chief occupant, university President Dan Mote.

"Mote himself has admitted that alcohol is the cause of most of the problems, not marijuana," [NORML Terps President Zach] Brown said, adding that it's therefore hypocritical to punish marijuana more seriously.

Although Mote supports the Amethyst Initiative, which calls for a debate among university presidents and chancellors about the legal drinking age, NORML Terps criticized Mote for his failure to support the Emerald Initiative, which invites a similar discussion about marijuana policies.

But with Mote resigning at the end of this school year and the university in the midst of a search for his replacement, NORML Terps hope the change in president will bring a change in policies.

"In my next president, I want a more pragmatic approach," Brown said. "We need a president who will look at how the policies are affecting our students."

And who would know best how policies are affecting students? The gray-haired college administrators? Or the students themselves?

In fact, that's the thrust behind the SAFER Campuses Initiative - a project of the organization I run - which was behind this day of action and has been picking up steam since it's launch in 2005. Since then, students have carried out campus referenda campaigns at more than a dozen colleges and universities, including at least five of the 15 largest schools in the nation. SAFER referendums express the student bodies' opinion that school penalties for marijuana use should be no greater than those for alcohol use, that way students are no longer steered toward using the more harmful substance.

In some cases, the efforts appear to be paying off. For example, a university committee at the University of Central Florida just recommended the equalization of campus alcohol and marijuana penalties. Now, it heads to university administrators' desks for final approval. If they didn't hear their students when they overwhelmingly voted for such a policy back in December 2008, hopefully they heard their students - and their peers across the country - this past week.

Mason Tvert is the executive director of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) and the co-author of Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, August 2009).