Nowhere is America's drinking problem more evident than among college students. Nearly 600,000 of them are injured in alcohol-related accidents, and 1,700 are killed each year, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking plays a role in nearly 700,000 physical assaults and more than 97,000 sexual assaults against students.
Today begins Alcohol Awareness Month, and to mark the occasion—and promote their own cause—students on more than 80 campuses in 34 states say they will rally for what they contend is a safer alternative to alcohol: marijuana.
Colleges themselves, organizers say, unwittingly encourage drinking by enforcing zero-tolerance policies against students who are caught smoking marijuana.
Rob Pfountz, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, says that at his campus, penalties for using marijuana are three times tougher than those used against underage students who are caught drinking.
"At the very least," he says, "penalties for marijuana should be no worse than for those against alcohol."
Mr. Pfountz is the campus spokesman for Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, or "Safer," the national pro-marijuana organization that is coordinating today's rallies. In Fayetteville, he says, students will gather on the mall outside the student union to distribute information about the relative safety of marijuana compared to alcohol.
In interviews, Mr. Pfountz and Mason Tvert, executive director and one of the founders of Safer, rattle off statistics and statements about the dangers of alcohol. Among them: It contributes to aggressive behavior and can result in overdose, two problems not associated with marijuana.
Mr. Tvert, now six years removed from college, recalls his own experience with alcohol poisoning at age 18. He was taken to a hospital, treated, and released. "There was no investigation into who gave me the alcohol," he recalls. He contrasts that with his treatment by a multijurisdictional drug task force that he says investigated him extensively when he was caught using marijuana as a freshman at the University of Richmond.
"The purpose of this day of action is to really show that there's a growing movement of college students who are fed up with policies that punish them for making a rational choice," says Mr. Tvert.
Toward that end, Safer is taking a page from, and a shot at, another group that is involved in the debate over student drinking: the 135 college presidents who have signed the Amethyst Initiative, a statement asserting that the national drinking age of 21 has encouraged a culture of "dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking" and should be lowered. The presidents, led by John M. McCardell Jr., have been criticized by legislators and some substance-abuse experts, and vilified by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Mr. Tvert says that student activists will ask their college presidents today to sign Safer's counterpart, the Emerald Initiative. The document echoes the Amethyst stance by calling for "informed and dispassionate public debate"—but on marijuana, not on the legal drinking age. Safer sent the Emerald Initiative to Amethyst signatories, Mr. Tvert says, but not a single one would sign it.
The Amethyst presidents "accept the fact that college students party," Mr. Tvert says. "They just want them to be safe while doing it. Why not say 'party responsibly' instead of 'drink responsibly'?"
Mr. McCardell, who will become president of Sewanee: the University of the South on July 1, says the similarities between Amethyst and Emerald stop at their names.
"When it comes to the drinking age, we are talking about age discrimination based upon a false premise that adjusting the drinking age is the best way to increase traffic safety," he says. With marijuana, "there's no argument that, once you reach a certain age, you cease to pose a risk to others." It's simply illegal.
In some places however, that could be changing. Fifteen states have medical-marijuana laws on the books, and California is set to vote on outright legalization in November. And if Golden State voters decided to legalize marijuana for people 21 and over, would the Amethyst signatories rise up and defend the right of 18-year-olds to fire up their bongs?
Mr. McCardell says that while he can't speak for his peers, the question barely interests him. "Why are we alighting on the marijuana issue?" he asks. "Alcohol, in many ways, is a much more complicated issue."
As a college president—he led Middlebury College for a dozen years before stepping down in 2004—Mr. McCardell is deeply concerned about "the obviously harmful violent immediate effects that alcohol can bring about."
Marijuana is a different animal altogether, and Mr. McCardell's only question about Safer's argument regards its logic: Why would college administrators want students to substitute one drug for another?
Mr. Tvert responds: "It's not adding another vice. It's providing an alternative. A safer alternative." For better or worse, he says, many Americans like to relax with an intoxicant, be it a drink or a joint.
"Sobriety may be the safest alternative," he says, "but it's not a realistic alternative—at least for most students."