Imagine federal agents sweeping into a college fraternity and confiscating . . . a keg of beer.
Change the contraband to drugs, however, and the image no longer seems preposterous. Yet, say college officials, despite the dramatic raids a week ago at the University of Virginia in which agents seized not just drugs but the three fraternity houses in which they were found, it is alcohol that students are more likely to abuse on campuses today.
"I don't want to say drug use is not a problem, but it's nowhere near the problem alcohol is," said Charles E. Maloy, associate vice president for student services at Towson State University and director of the campus counseling center. "We have a serious alcohol problem in this country, but we don't like talking about it. And the war on drugs focuses our attention away from it."
A federally funded nationwide survey of college students released earlier this year bears out Mr. Maloy's observation. It shows that while drug use has dropped dramatically in the past decade -- by as much as 80 percent for some types of drugs -- alcohol use has declined only slightly.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse survey of about 1,300 college students in 1990 found that 15 percent had used drugs in the previous month, as compared with 38 percent of students surveyed 10 years earlier. Most students who use drugs still choose marijuana rather than the so-called harder drugs such as cocaine. During this decade, the percentage of students reporting heavy alcohol use dropped negligibly from 44 percent to 41 percent.
"Not only is use [of drugs] down, but tolerance is down," said Lloyd D. Johnston, a University of Michigan researcher who headed the survey. "Fewer young people find it acceptable to use drugs. The norms among college students have definitely changed."
Mr. Johnston attributed the decline in drug use to the changing image of drugs over the decade, from glamorous to dangerous, from a symbol of anti-establishment leanings to something darker and more criminal.
"As we've gotten further and further away from the Vietnam era and all the social alienation among young people, drug use has lost all its symbolic value," Mr. Johnston said. "It used to be a symbol of protest, a symbol of solidarity with the new youth movement.
"The other thing that happened was that enough time has transpired that we've become more aware of the dangers of drug use," he said. "The message that young people get today from the media, from the national advertising campaigns, is a sober one. The media don't treat drug use with the same cavalier, wink-and-a-nod acceptance that used to be there."
Despite the apparent decline in drug use on college campuses, the raid at the University of Virginia ran up a red flag for colleges, which, because of the traditional town vs. gown separation, may not have received as much drug enforcement attention as the inner cities, where law enforcement authorities have directed most of their activities.
In fact, the Virginia arrests -- in which 12 students were charged with distributing drugs -- came after complaints in Charlottesville that police have long cracked down on drug activity among inner-city blacks while ignoring similar crimes by the mostly white university students.
As crack cocaine came to be perceived as the major drug problem in the United States, drug enforcement officials focused on the locale in which it is most likely to be found -- the inner city. Crack has always been a minor presence on college campuses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse survey, which has never found more than 0.5 percent of students using it.
College students are more likely to use marijuana or, to a lesser extent, cocaine. A lacrosse player from Loyola College in Baltimore was arrested at Baltimore-Washington International Airport March 22 for possession of marijuana and cocaine. And ** the University of Virginia raids netted 12 bags of marijuana, one bag of LSD tabs, three bags of hallucinogenic mushrooms, and drug-use paraphernalia.
"When you see the police swooping down on a crack house, when you see it in the news -- it's overwhelmingly an inner-city, black problem. In that sense, I think [the university arrests] are a positive thing," Mr. Maloy said. "I know police hope it says, 'We're not just going after the blacks.' "
The raid "does seem to be a message to us," said Susan Boswell, dean of students at the Johns Hopkins University. "It can be interpreted as putting us all on alert, even though alcohol is much more the drug of choice on campus."
At the University of Maryland in College Park, officials were sufficiently concerned about alcohol abuse to ban weekday parties in which alcohol is served, the delivery of alcohol to the campus and the use of kegs or other "common" containers. In addition, the college limits the size of parties by banning open invitations to them and reducing the number of fraternities and sororities that can jointly host a party.
College Park has a particular reason for fearing the seizure of fraternity houses: The college owns 21 of the 40 fraternity and sorority houses. (The three fraternity houses seized at the University of Virginia are owned by the fraternities themselves.)
Terry Zacker, College Park's assistant director of campus activities and adviser to the Greek societies, said the school took action two years ago to tighten supervision of houses it owns. "We instituted house directors in the houses we own," she said. "We thought it was important to have an older, more adult presence in this kind of living environment."
Like other schools, College Park has focused more on alcohol than drug abuse in recent years, finding the former more prevalent, Ms. Zacker said.
Jack Taylor, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Baltimore, defended the University of Virginia arrests, saying that despite the survey conclusions, drug activity hasn't gone away. He said he found it "astounding" that anyone would suggest that anti-drug efforts are misdirected because alcohol is the more frequently abused substance on campus.
"That's an ivory-tower mentality. The survey information is encouraging, but by no means can we conclude that the [drug] problem is over," Mr. Taylor said. "We have to continue our efforts. It's still a violation of the law, and we have an obligation to enforce it."
The arrests have rocked the tradition-bound University of Virginia, which was founded 172 years ago by Thomas Jefferson. The university -- whose lovely, ivy-covered buildings he designed -- retains much of the gentility of its historic antecedents and is ruled by a rigorous, 149-year-old honor code against lying, cheating and stealing.
"[The code] is really engraved in the fabric of the university. You sign a statement saying you'll uphold it when you enter the school," said Travis Lewis, a 22-year-old student who heads the Honor Committee that enforces the code. "I still say a sense of honor reigns here, but this has been very sobering. People have been very disturbed."
Mr. Lewis said it has not yet been determined whether the drug arrests would fall under the code. This academic year, 98 students were investigated under the code, and nine were expelled.
Another University of Virginia student said that the amount of attention paid to the arrests far outstrips the amount of drug activity on campus, especially within fraternities. "The important thing is to keep in perspective it was 12 individuals in a Greek system of 4,000 in a school of 18,000," said Scott Gwilliam, 21, a senior who belongs to another fraternity.
"I'm not surprised that after a six-month investigation that they could find 12 people [allegedly involved in drugs]," he said.
While he wouldn't comment on drinking at campus parties, Mr. Gwilliam said he didn't see much drug use.
"Most of us feel strongly the amount of drug abuse [at the University of Virginia] is very minimal," he said. "From my experience in the Greek system, drugs are not accepted within the system itself. In my four years here, at parties both Greek and non-Greek, I rarely have seen drugs."