The $50,000 Joint

Jeremy Gordon and Jeremy Gordon

After a couple of months of dealing pot out of his room in Bobb-McCulloch Hall, Simon was getting a little paranoid. His clientele, which at first had just been a small circle of friends, had expanded to include friends of friends, kids down the hall he didn’t know, and sometimes, visitors from outside Northwestern. His CA didn’t care about kids drinking as long as they didn’t do it in the hallways, but dealing was an entirely new offense. The giant gallon Ziploc bag full of carefully divided eighths of marijuana, each separated in its own little baggie, started to smell more and more to Simon as the grind of winter quarter wore on.

Weed smells. It’s the toughest thing to deal with if you’re trying to keep your stash a secret – you can lock it in a box, put it in a drawer, vacuum-seal it or put it in an airtight mason jar and it’s still going to stink. No matter how many CVS bags Simon wrapped his product in or how deep he shoved it into his closet, the odor of wet grass, burning rope and pine continued to fill the room. At least he thought it did. He couldn’t be sure. Though his friends said they never smelled anything, they weren’t the ones who had to leave the room and hope a gaggle of cops wouldn’t be standing in front of it when he came back.

One day, when his roommate wasn’t home, Simon dug the bag out of his closet and made sure it was sealed tight. He peeked his head out of his door to make sure no one was walking through the hallway. Bag in hand, he quickly stepped out and walked toward the men’s bathroom.

No one was inside. He walked over to a stall and stepped in and locked the door behind him. He quickly stepped on top of the toilet seat, still holding the bag, and looked up. He put his fingers to the ceiling tile above him and propped it up. Then, he took his massive Ziploc bag – covered in one wrinkled plastic bag after another – and put it through the hole in the ceiling he had just created, resting it on top of an adjacent tile. He replaced the tile, stepped down from the toilet and went back to his room. From then on, whenever a customer came calling, Simon would go into the bathroom, get back on the toilet, take his weed down, distribute it and put it back.

“You know, I never found my piece or grinder at the end of the year when I moved out,” he laughs hard, after taking a break from his bong to talk. “Do you think if I went back, it might still be there?”

If you didn’t know already, let an expert tell you: “Dealing out of a dorm is very risky stuff.”

James Kowalsky, the president of Northwestern’s chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), has just finished talking on end about the school’s drug policy, and he looks a little incredulous when I say I’ve talked to a few people who used to sling marijuana right under their CAs’ noses. “The smell of marijuana is very potent. If you have one CA who doesn’t like it and walks by, you’re fucked. You have a scale? A smoking apparatus? A large amount of weed? You are in trouble, especially if you have over an ounce. Then you are really fucked.”

As the local NORML liaison, Kowalsky is a textbook of drug policy, dropping casual facts about the side effects of using marijuana (they’ve been gravely overstated, he says) and talking up NORML’s efforts to expand local student consciousness about drug laws and the consequences for students caught using drugs. NU’s drug policy is short-sighted and narrow-minded, he says. “It’s trying to make moral claims and take the most P.C. stance they possible can.”

But what is NU’s drug policy? If you look in the Student Handbook, you’ll see a few basic rules under a section labeled “Drugs”: Students are subject to criminal laws, NU is not a sanctuary for students caught using drugs, University Police has the right to investigate, and so forth. A section entitled “Sanctions and Outcomes” delineates the possible consequences for being caught, including housing probation, expulsion, fines and reduction of student privileges.

The key word is “possible.” On record, there’s no specific consequence for any violations, creating a gray area of possible sanctions. “We don’t do anything automatic,” says Jim Neumeister, the director of Judicial Affairs. “We are going to take into account what the violation was, what are the needs of the student and whatever other factors are surrounding it.” Neumeister, along with Residential Life and the Dean of Students’ Office, forms a team that deals with every student disciplinary problem on campus, including drug-related offenses.

When I ask him what the most common punishment is, perhaps for a student caught smoking pot in his room, he doesn’t give a definitive answer. “It’s going to depend on what the student’s history is,” he says. He talks about prior disciplinary actions, the severity of the incident and how the punishment is likely to be a combination of multiple sanctions. Clearly, he doesn’t want to be misleading. However, there are sanctions that NU doesn’t officially address at all in the Handbook.

The Higher Education Act, passed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, contains a clause introduced by Congressman Mark Souder (R-In.) in 1998 called the Aid Elimination Penalty, which states that students who are convicted for drug-related reasons while in college lose their eligibility for federal student aid for one year. According to Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), more than 200,000 college students have lost financial aid since 2000 under this law.

“What happens for most students is that after a year you can re-apply for financial aid, but by then you’ve dropped out of school because you couldn’t afford it,” Kowalsky adds. “Northwestern is saying, ‘We want people to be good and well-educated productive citizens. But oh, you smoke pot? And someone caught you? Well, don’t go to college.’ What sense does that make?”

“It’s not that they don’t care about the consequences, it’s that they’re not fully aware of the ramifications,” Kowalsky says, dismissing the notion that people who smoke marijuana aren’t afraid of jail time. “Most kids who are arrested don’t know about this. People hear about this and go, ‘That’s what CAs do when they smell pot? That’s what they do?'” His voice crests in exasperation. “I don’t understand why they’re purposely vague about it. If you really believe in these penalties, you would get your point across.”

A former CA in Bobb-McCulloch who never called the cops on anyone – “my sense of smell sucks,” he says – thinks the university has to be consistent in its approach to federal law. “If they did that, then why wouldn’t they have to explain every other federal policy? The government doesn’t go around telling you all the policies explicitly. I’m not saying they should or they shouldn’t, but they should be consistent and either explain one or explain all.”

Were NU administrators to single out federal drug laws as something to be specifically explained to students, they would either be admitting that it’s a problem that needs addressing – a public relations nightmare, for sure – or they would be trying to shield students from being prosecuted. In either case, any policy changes would definitely not be anti-drug, a mindset that could offend donating alumni or prospective applicants.

Kowalsky says what the university chooses to do is a matter of fear. “They’re afraid one rich person might get mad if they change their stance on marijuana and then they’d have to justify it. And you know what’s easier than justifying it? Saying marijuana is bad.” He points to a proposed solution called the Marijuana-Alcohol Equalization Act, which would make the procedure for dealing with suspected marijuana use the same as alcohol use: Having the CA knock on the door, confiscate any marijuana or paraphernalia and destroying it. He shakes his head after explaining it and says even if it got ratified by the student body, the administration would shoot it down. “The campus policy is parallel to federal law,” he says, “which is why they
wouldn’t consider something obvious.”

The official stats on marijuana-related arrests at NU don’t reflect reality – according to University Police, a total of zero people were arrested for marijuana-related reasons in 2007 or 2008. Prior to 2009, there were no citations issued for drug-related offenses. Police officers had two options: referral to Student Affairs or arrest.

Generally speaking, if a student has a small amount of marijuana on them or a small smoking apparatus and is cooperative with the police, they’re not going to be arrested, according to Lt. Ron Godby. While there are a number of drug-related arrests on record – four in 2006 and 2005, five in 2004 – the majority of these cases do not show up in the statistics.

“I have no clear way to search and obtain summaries for incidents involving students in possession of drugs,” Godby wrote in an e-mail. “Some incidents involving referral to Student Affairs may not show on the statistics I was able to obtain.”

By chance, I sat down with Sarah, a girl who was accused of smoking pot when she was living in a dorm. As the arduous process of meeting with Judicial and Student Affairs was a “nerve-wracking process,” she wanted to make sure that none of the information could point to her.

As University Police questioned her and her friends, she says they were aggressive. The police hurled curse words – “I’m not fucking stupid! Don’t fucking mess with us!” – tried to get them to implicate each other, and went around the dorm floor asking other residents whether or not the students were “huge pot heads,” she says. After taking everyone’s name and student ID, they left.

Over the next few months, Sarah met with the residential coordinator of her dorm and Mary Goldenberg, the director of University Residential Life. Goldenberg, she says, tried to get her to give up other students, mentioning expulsion and probation as possible consequences, to no avail. Eventually, the charges died down and after months of waiting, she received an e-mail saying there was insufficient evidence to charge her.

Simon, the dealer from the beginning, doesn’t deal drugs anymore. The pressure of having to keep his stash hidden, along with the paranoia that he would eventually get busted, made him stop selling once his supply ran out. His decision to just be a regular smoker leaves him more optimistic about not getting in trouble. “NU doesn’t want to kick out students who are paying them lots of money to attend,” he says. “If someone gets caught smoking in a dorm, that isn’t really correlating to them being a bad student. I think the university realizes that to some extent.” He pauses and sits back in his chair. “I hope.”