80’s college angst: cause or symptom of drug use?

So, I recently read Brett Easton Ellis’ Rules of Attraction and Donna Tartt’s Secret History, and one thing I was struck by was the incredible prevalence of drug use. Not just marijuana, but everything you could imagine, and being done by everyone in the school, from people who spent their days closeted in the library to star athletes.

And I was thinking, “This is bull”. There is no way drugs were this prevalent on any college campus, even on small lib arts colleges in the 80s. It’s some weird glamour thing that these brat-pack writers cultivated.

So I went looking for statistics and found this report (warning, 2 MB pdf), which indicates that drug usage was (if not quite up to Ellisean standards) at least extremely prevalent back then, in a way that I cannot imagine now.

The lifetime usage rate (measuring whether a college student had ever used the given drug) for nearly every drug was nearly twenty points higher in 1983 than in 2006 (when I was a sophomore/junior). 23% for cocaine then, 8% now, for instance.

What would it be like to be on a campus where 8% of the students have used cocaine in the last month (as opposed to1.8% in 2006). That’s an incredible figure to me., when you add up all the other drugs, it’s easy to paint a picture of a college environment incredibly different from the one I had. Stanford was filled with fairly stolid, hard-working (though still interesting people) who mostly seemed pretty content and steady.

But this theoretical 1983 campus seems like it would be a very different place. The various hangovers and clashing chemically induced mood swings alone would make it an incredibly strange place for interpersonal relations, even without chemical dependency problems and their resulting fallout.

I’m kind of glad I wasn’t there for that, honestly.