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From the Archives: Ask the Ethicist: Substance Use in Sub-Free Housing

Note from the original 2003 publication: The purpose of the “Carleton Ethicist” is to provide insight and reflection on everyday dilemmas facing individuals on campus. The “Carleton Ethicist” is not one person, but instead a group fo Carleton faculty, staff, students, administrators and alumni who take turns responding to submitted questions.

Question of the Week:

Faced with few other options at freshman-year room draw, my roommate and I reluctantly drew into a substance-free floor, and reluctantly signed a substance-free contract. Over the course of the next year, we occasionally drank in our room, and occasionally returned to our room somewhat intoxicated. However, our drinking did not disturb the lives of any of our neighbors—we kept our activities private and were never loud or obnoxious. Was our behavior unethical?

Ethicist’s Response: By Lisa Smith and Carissa Bannan

It is always questionable to sign a contract knowing that you may not hold up your end of the bargain 100 percent of the time. However, with the exception of drinking in your room, you did not break your contract. The substance-free (hereafter referred to as “sub-free”) contract states:

“If residents or their guests choose to use such substances [alcohol, drugs, or tobacco] outside of the Substance-Free Area, the results of that choice must not have a negative impact upon residents or property upon return to the Substance-Free Area.”

This means that when you drank off the floor and returned without disrupting people, you were still abiding by the contract. However, drinking in your room breaks the community standard to which you and those around you have agreed.

The reasons why people choose to live in a sub-free environment vary greatly. What we have observed at Carleton seems to be based more on the abuse of alcohol. Here are some reasons why sub-free areas may be appealing to students who want to avoid seeing the use and abuse of alcohol:

The student is a recovering alcoholic.

The student has family members or friends who were alcoholics and have observed firsthand what addiction can do to a person physically as well as emotionally.

Being in the presence of someone who consumes alcohol regularly and in an abusive manner may be too much pressure for a student with a naturally addictive personality.

The student may have religious convictions that do not allow substance use or abuse.

Drinking is not a part of the student’s value system.

This past fall, some incoming students were not able to secure sub-free rooms per their request because the rooms were all filled. We would be pleased if it were the case that everyone who drew a sub-free room wanted one.

When students sign the contract, they agree to notify the Resident Assistant or Hall Director if they no longer feel they can uphold the contract. We do not view it as a failure nor do we try to punish that student who no longer wishes to live on the sub-free floor. On the contrary, in our experiences, we have been very pleased with any student who is honest about the fact that he or she can no longer live within the sub-free area. If you had told a staff member you could not uphold the contract, the Residential Life department would have worked with you to find a desirable, available room. Additionally, that would have opened a space for someone who wished to live in the sub-free environment.

With Room Draw coming up, this is a great time to be aware of what the sub-free contract states to see if you could abide by all the guidelines.

The views expressed by the “Carleton Ethicist” are not necessarily those of Carleton College or of all the “Carleton Ethicist” contrbutors.

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