Cocaine case is the buzz of UNC

Most say arrests of current, former students not indicative of mores.

Staff WritersOctober 11, 2009 

  • Cocaine use among U.S. college students

    Students appear to use cocaine far less than marijuana or alcohol.

    According to a 2008 National Institutes of Health study of college students and drug abuse, cocaine use among college students has declined over time. In 1980, 16.8 percent of college students used cocaine; by 2007, that number had dropped to 5.4 percent.

    Over the same time period, marijuana use dropped from 51.2 percent to 31.8 percent.

— In a college town where booze is king and pot is popular, the recent arrests of seven current or former UNC-Chapel Hill students on cocaine charges created a stir.

The charges were unusual -- particularly because two people were charged with felony drug trafficking. But experts say all this is not likely an indicator of a surge in cocaine's popularity.

"I haven't noticed a huge problem with it," said Scott Gallisdorfer, who, as the university's undergraduate student attorney general, evaluates students charged with crimes to decide which will face the student honor court. "We don't get a ton of cocaine cases. The vast majority are marijuana."

During the past four years, the number of students facing honor court charges for alcohol violations has outpaced all drug charges, according to the most recent honor court data available.

And a 2008 survey of UNC-CH students revealed a wide disparity in the use of these vices: 69 percent of respondents said they'd consumed alcohol in the last 30 days, about 20 percent had used marijuana in that period and just 2.5 percent had used cocaine.

Still, the cocaine busts last month at a local apartment have been a hot topic among students and parents. Several students arrested were in fraternities or sororities, including two women who lived in the Chi Omega house -- a detail the student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel pointed out repeatedly in its reporting.

That led to debate about drug use and the Greek system.

"It's not confined to the Greek community," said Winston Crisp, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs. "I don't think the Greek community gets excused, but more generally, drugs and alcohol are problems that go throughout the student body."

Crisp issued a stern warning to Greek organizations recently, saying the university would no longer tolerate drug and alcohol abuse and the destructive behavior it spawns.

UNC-CH officials have not created new drug policies or regulations, but they say the recent busts have provided an opportunity for introspection.

"We continue to look into what the culture is on our campus," said Bob Winston, chairman of UNC-CH's Board of Trustees. "We don't think we have a pervasive drug issue."

On Sept. 15, Chapel Hill police raided a Church Street apartment and confiscated 75.6 grams of cocaine broken into one-gram packets, a clear indication of intent to sell, police said.

In the raid, Jonathan Ray Plymale, 22, and Eliza McQuail Vaughan, 21, were charged with trafficking, cocaine possession and intent to distribute the drug. Police subsequently found an additional 121 grams of cocaine when they searched Plymale's home at 107 Fraternity Court. The street value of all the cocaine is about $7,500, police said.

Vaughan is a UNC-CH student; Plymale was enrolled until spring 2009.

"It's not normal for us to catch students with trafficking amounts," said Sgt. Jabe Hunter, head of Chapel Hill Police Department's narcotics division. "That's definitely unusual."

While other drugs are more popular, cocaine has been a consistent presence on this and other college campuses for decades, experts say. But it has a stigma that others do not and thus is generally consumed out of public view, students and health experts say.

"It's such an undercover thing," said Jasmin Jones, UNC-CH's student body president. "It's condemned so much and there are such repercussions, people know to hide it."

The university's honor court takes it seriously. Consider: A student's first sanction for marijuana possession is a semester of probation; for cocaine possession, a semester suspension. If you're caught dealing cocaine, you get expelled.

Second shock

The September arrests were another blow to the Greek system, already shaken by the recent death of fraternity president Courtland Smith.

Smith, president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, was shot dead by Archdale police last month after a bizarre evening that began at a fraternity party and ended after Smith, while driving on I-85, told a 911 operator he was drinking, had a gun and was trying to kill himself.

The fraternity was subsequently sanctioned by a Greek judicial board for serving alcohol at events, including the party the night before Smith died. The fraternity was put on social probation for a year and prohibited from hosting parties; it is now under review and could lose its official recognition by the university.

Wes Minton, a Raleigh real estate broker, said this fall's events have forced parents to acknowledge that there are substance-abuse problems on college campuses. Minton, a 1978 UNC-CH graduate, has two children at UNC-CH. He's had the drugs-and-alcohol talk with them plenty of times, starting when they were 11 or 12, Minton said.

He hopes it sank in.

"I'm doing the best I can with a very difficult culture out there," Minton said recently.

"It's not just in Chapel Hill, and it's not just a Greek [system] problem. It's campus-wide and all over this country. It's scary."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008.

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