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.