On the last day of classes at Reed College, the prestigious, small, liberal-arts school in Portland, Ore., placards go up on the borders of campus, announcing to outsiders that for the next two days, the general public is not welcome here. That’s to allow “Reedies” (and their invited guests) to celebrate in private the end of their notoriously rigorous classes by blowing off steam at the college’s annual “Renn Fayre” event, held this past weekend. It’s a hedonistic display of shiny spandex costumes, glitter, painted breasts, lube wrestling, over-the-top public makeout sessions, neon, theses torched in a giant bonfire outside Hauser Library, fireworks, and screaming that can be heard from blocks away.
Think of Renn Fayre as higher education’s Burning Man; or Woodstock, without the legendary rock acts. It’s a raucous, raging outdoor party, replete with current and former students hoisting one another upon their shoulders and tackling their giggling classmates to the champagne-soaked turf.
And it’s no fun sober. To be a teetotaling bystander among the blotto masses at Renn Fayre is to feel like one of those kids lining the walls at the junior-high dance, desperate to exude that “I am having a fantastic time” expression that only looks authentic if you are actually having a fantastic time.
That’s why some Reedies are less than stoked about U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton’s best effort to clamp down on drug use at the affair, a case made so forcefully in a recent meeting with Reed president Colin Diver that it left Diver wondering whether he might wind up in jail, prosecuted under a federal statute that was enacted by Congress to stiffen penalties on the proprietors of crack houses.
Yes, crack houses. Holton did not actually threaten to lock Diver up. But he did end a meeting that he insists was more about “What can we do to help?” by referencing the statute, which carries a 20-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine. And when pressed, Holton says he could actually imagine using it, if the college knowingly allowed the kind of open-air drug peddling and usage around which Renn Fayre is long rumored to revolve. “I don’t lose any sleep whatsoever at the prospect that I’m going to end up in jail or with a $500,000 fine,” Diver told NEWSWEEK. “But it would really, really be unpleasant if either I or the board of trustees were hauled into court on an investigation into whether we were running a crack house. This would not be fun.”
Why the tough talk from the feds? Holton says there are three critical factors: two of the college’s 1,300 students have died of heroin overdoses in the past two years; federal agents, battling a surge in black-tar heroin use and distribution in Oregon that is increasingly targeted at upper-middle-class white kids like those that dominate Reed’s student body, have been hearing rumblings that drug pushers were stocking up in anticipation of this year’s Fayre; and, according to some media reports and the word on the streets, the college’s annual hoopla has historically been a great place to get lit on any number of different substances. (Willamette Week, the local alternative weekly, has breathlessly covered Renn Fayre in the past—a lengthy 2008 piece quoted Diver as saying Reed is a college known for two things, “brains,” and “drugs” — to the dismay of some students and professors, who say there may be drug use on campus and at the event, but it’s not anywhere near as blatant as described and certainly not condoned. A NEWSWEEK reporter smelled pot, but didn’t see any drug use during several hours spent at the festival last weekend.)
Holton decided to reach out to Diver in the wake of the latest heroin overdose in March, which left senior physics major Sam Tepper dead in an off-campus apartment, at age 22. “Sam’s death, plus the symbolic importance of Renn Fayre, created a moment for Diver to seize,” Holton said. “We wanted him to seize it.” Diver did respond, despite calling the U.S. Attorney’s response an overreaction. The president quickly sent out a campuswide e-mail urging students not to use drugs, several varieties of which he specifically named. He’s pledged to revisit the school’s drug-enforcement policy, which has in the past taken a nuanced, two-tiered approach where “hard drugs” are vilified but others not as much, which Holton is concerned results in a mixed message to campus. (Alumnae who attended Reed in the late 1990s say they can remember times when weed was smoked openly in the Student Union building.)
For the first time this year, undercover cops from the Portland Police Bureau mingled with the partygoers, on the hunt for illicit drug use—especially distribution—which is why the grounds at Renn Fayre were plastered with banners bearing slogans such as “Welcome Portland Police Bureau,” and there was a booth where undercover cops were invited to check in (this was basically a heads-up to the Fayre’s attendees that there were narcs on the premises). There were also flyers taped to buildings that read “Do not antagonize the police. Don’t help, don’t hinder. Do not answer any questions. Do not approach. Undercover police are not required to reveal themselves as such.”
Will any of the changes at Renn Fayre or in the school’s policy actually reduce drug use at Reed? There isn’t even much evidence that many more Reed students do hard drugs than other college students, and drug-policy experts say enforcement doesn’t do much to deter drug use—it’s prevention and education that have helped to reduce the percentage of college-age Americans who say they’ve used marijuana in the past month from 38 percent in 1978 to the 18 percent it’s at today.
Both Holton and Diver say they agree on that point, but that enforcement remains the necessary “third leg of the stool” in combating a serious problem at Reed and elsewhere in Oregon.
But the crack-house statute? Never before has it been used on college campuses, where binge drinking tends to be a much bigger problem than drugs, said Robert MacCoun, a psychologist and professor of law and public policy at the University of California Berkeley. “College campuses are much more orderly places today than they were when I was a college student. There’s more supervision, and students are much more worried about getting jobs,” MacCoun said. “Whatever Reed or Berkeley looks like today is just a shadow of the kind of drug use that there was in the late 1970s.”
Diver looked up the statute after Holton referred to it in their meeting, he said, assuming it specifically applied to crack houses and that it couldn’t be used against him. “I have a pretty good sense of what a crack house is,” he said, “not from any personal experience, mind you.” What Diver was “shocked” to read is that the statute subjects any person who is the proprietor of a place where drug use is knowingly going on to criminal and civil penalties, and he also learned of efforts in Congress to extend the punishments to the hosts of raves (parties, typically at dance clubs or warehouses that feature techno music and drug use). Diver concluded: “These guys [at the U.S. Attorney’s office] are obviously thinking the language could apply to us.”?
Harvard professor Philip Heymann said he thinks going after the college is a great idea, provided there actually is some knowing tolerance of drug use on campus. “In general, we ought to focus more on the people who are responsible rather than the people who are irresponsible,” said Heymann, who served as deputy U.S. attorney general under President Bill Clinton. “I wouldn’t want to see the president of Reed sent to jail, but if you could fine Reed and embarrass it with prosecution, I would probably do that. It sounds like a very hard case to make, though.”
Apparently that won’t be a necessary step: last weekend’s festivities led to no drug-related arrests.