Culture  Fear and loathing in rez

In residence, drugs are pervasive, but not predominant

For students who live in residences, entering the University represents more than an additional four years of learning. It marks the departure from one’s home and, accordingly, from all parent-enforced rules and prohibitions. In residence, students can abandon their sleep schedules, laundry cycles, and – more dramatically – inhibitions toward drugs.

So it comes as no surprise that McGill’s residence network is dense with drug use. In addition to drinking, many students casually engage in the recreational use of weed – Montreal’s third most accessible drug, behind caffeine and alcohol. And all-nighters are widely facilitated by the use of “study drugs” such as Adderall and Ritalin, which reportedly improve students’ ability to concentrate. More interesting, however, is how each of McGill’s residences – distant from each other not only in terms of geography, but in socioeconomic class and architecture – develop their own, distinct drug cultures.

Take New Residence and Carrefour Sherbrooke, coincidentally the most expensive residences to live in at McGill. Though weed is no more common there than elsewhere, the two are distinguished by their students’ casual use of more expensive drugs like MDMA and cocaine, often consumed before outings. In the words of one New Residence occupant: “Weed transcends groups and is most common with guys. I’d say [MDMA and cocaine] are more prevalent with girls, in relation to going out to clubs and other events. Coke is more for ‘rich kids.’” In contrast, at MORE houses – the most affordable of McGill residences – cocaine use was not mentioned at all by students interviewed.

But where the relative cost of each residence informed the types of drugs students would consume, their distinct architectures and layouts had an impact on how drug use integrated itself into student life. In smaller residences – or floors where bedroom doors don’t automatically shut – it’s much easier for students to gather around and collectively partake in drug use. In residences where doors automatically swing shut (New Residence, Carrefour Sherbrooke, and Greenbriar come to mind), students have more difficulty finding people to do drugs with and eventually, drug use can end up confined to certain rooms or floors.

Although drug use may be more concentrated in McGill residences than other sectors of society, in the absolute, the rate of drug use is still fairly small – participation is certainly not universal. One Douglas occupant estimated that the number of frequent drug users in his residence was limited to about 15 or 20 students. Out of 180, that would translate into a maximum of 11 per cent – not a particularly disquieting figure. But even among more frequent users, one gets the overall impression that students do not let drugs interfere with their academic life. No one is dropping acid in the morning and proceeding onto a magical mystery tour to class; rather, most students restrict drug use to weekends, in safe environments, with groups of people they trust.

According to one residence floor fellow, who wished to remain anonymous, “grey zone” is a term commonly used when dealing with drug consumption. During training, floor fellows are told that drugs are prohibited and immediately pass the message onto their students. However, as one floor fellow said, “We know the rules, but we also know the reality” – the reality being that some students, regardless of the rules, will choose to do drugs. So many floor fellows simply opt to treat students as fellow adults, capable of making their own decisions. Only when a floor fellow can smell or see marijuana being used or a student complains will there be an intervention. Otherwise, assumptions are not made.

“We would rather develop a relationship with our students in which they can trust us,” said the floor fellow explaining a decision which in turn creates a space for open discussion, and the chance for residents to have good relationships with their floor fellows. Many students are comfortable enough with their floor fellows to be honest about casual drug use. Strong concern is only expressed when students are engaging in heavier drugs. Floor fellows encourage students not to use them alone, and in the event that they do, they are suggested to notify them of what drugs they’re planning on doing via notes in closed envelopes, so floor fellows can be prepared to react in case of emergency. Furthermore, if these drugs are found in a student’s possession, there are severe consequences.

Overall, while McGill’s policy aims to be realistic, it is not far outside the boundaries of enforced drug laws with an emphasis on students’ general safety. Despite the assumptions the McGill community may have specifically about drug culture in residences, most first-year students would agree about the fact that residence is a place where everyone is respected and feels safe. In other words, a good place to make mistakes in.