Zero-Tolerance Prohibition Makes Hazing Deadlier. Here’s Why. . .

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Pennsylvania recently passed new hazing legislation thanks to the tragedy at Penn State and the diligent work of the parents of the hazing victim. The North-American Interfraternity Conference’s coalition with parents of hazing victims seeks to enact more prohibitions like Pennsylvania’s in other states and federally with the Reach Act. 

Still, a quick search of deaths due to hazing will show that the number of deaths due to fraternity hazing have increased since the turn of the century, which coincides with increased state-level prohibition, increased fraternity-level prohibition, and excessive spending on anti-hazing educational programming from experts in the field. [1]

“With this bill it is a crime to force a student or minor to consume food, alcohol or drugs or subject them to physical or mental harm that is all too common on college campuses”

Tom Wolf, Governor of Pennsylvania

Dear Governor Wolf: Was it legal to force a student or minor to consume anything or subject them to physical or mental harm prior to this new criminal law?

Probably not, but when we confuse writing rules and patronizing pacification with leadership we are rewarded with this type of redundant, backward legislation. [2]

Prohibition Makes Desirable Things Happen In The Most Undesirable Ways.

Let us look at some examples:

Alcohol: The clearest example is alcohol prohibition, which resulted in the closure of nearly 200,000 saloons and parlors across the nation with the passage of the 18th Amendment. Alcohol still existed, and was still consumed, only now it was done in secret and the only means to acquire it was through cartels like that of Al Capone – widely regarded as one of if not the most deadly gangsters in American history. (Chi-city baby!)

As a result of prohibition, these cartels began selling harder alcohol. As is noted in this recent piece by Forbes about marijuana prohibition (getting to that), it was much easier to hide a single barrel of whiskey than 8 or so barrels of beer with the same alcohol content. The product got stronger, more dangerous, and the secret activity around it created a deadly environment for those involved in its sale. 

Cigarettes: Many know of Eric Garner, a New York City man who was killed by police at a time when the Black Lives Matter moment was at its news-media coverage peak (it must no longer drive healthy advertising revenue. . .). 

Garner was killed while under arrest because he was suspected of selling single cigarettes on the street without tax stamps. A pack of 20 cigarettes faces a $5.85 combined state/local tax in New York City. Whether you like or dislike cigarettes or a person’s decision to smoke them, one can be assume that there are more pressing criminal activities demanding NYPD’s attention. 

Marijuana: Returning to the Forbes article – we see noted there that Marijuana, a substance which has not resulted in a single death in the known history of the world, has become more dangerous due to prohibition. 

In addition to the illegal trade and violence surrounding illegal trade of the drug, laws which penalize someone with marijuana for the amount they possess in grams encourages consumers to seek marijuana with higher THC content (the stuff that gets you “high”) often at the expense of the plant’s CBD content (the stuff used to treat epilepsy and which neutralizes the neurosis-causing effects of long-term THC use).

Dealers benefit from more potent stuff because it means there is less for them to transport in general and with each transaction. Containers with marijuana are labeled in states where it is legalized with the anticipated effects and THC content. Which brings us to . . .

Opioids: Incarceration of illegal users of opioids is expensive, does nothing to address addiction, and results in those same addicted abusers returning to prison for repeat violations. We could save lives and money if our focus was, like alcohol, on rehabilitative services. 

“Prohibition does not eliminate desire, but makes it happen in the most dangerous and undesirable way.”

Congressman Ron Paul

Our uneasiness in dealing with fear and addiction drive our desire to banish and blame those things which lend themselves to abuse. It is an interesting phenomenon to watch fraternities position themselves as stewards of mental health while continuing to support policies criminalizing those who exhibit poor mental health.

Discriminating Between Dangerous Hazing & Legitimate Rites of Passage

Perhaps those students and alumni who desire a rite of passage are not criminals. Could we help chapters move away from forced consumption, physical abuse and mental abuse and toward a more rewarding, relevant challenge if conversations about hazing could be had without disclaimers and “amnesty” rules?

Students seem to find a way around each new rule meant to combat hazing: 

  • Shortening the new member period has resulted in the hazing of new initiates or seniors.
  • Deferred recruitment just means that lawless, alcohol-induced, expensive underground recruitment occurs throughout the fall term.
  • Blanket zero-tolerance policies applied to a broad definition of “hazing” results in more potent, less detectable, and deadlier hazing activity. 

The proof is in the numbers, more students have died to hazing this decade than at any time in history. No laws, lectures, or “standards of excellence” programs have made any measurable impact. It is obvious to anyone who can read or who has dealt with addiction: Criminalization is not a solution, but it is the cornerstone of every modern fraternity/university press release.

Anything that gives the impression of “earning” initiation is deemed hazing and immediately shamed and banned. Just say “scavenger hunt” to an ambitious fraternity/sorority professional and watch their face – it will look as if they just heard about 9/11.

We close chapters and imagine that they will be permanently “better” when they are re-established – but the risk management issues persist because nothing has changed behind the scenes.

I wonder. . . would too many people lose their authority, their relevance, or their career if the hazing problem were truly solved? Is that why so many work together to promote costly ideas known to fail?

I doubt it is anything so consciously evil – maybe it is just an issue of pride and the cultish reality tunnel of the fraternity/sorority professional network that chokes out any person with a different idea to address the hazing issue.

Real Hazing Reform

In addition to the three suggestions I have for the NIC’s coalition to end dangerous hazing (link – reform insurance, end checklist leadership, report the stats), perhaps it is time we consider developing real, post-adolescent rites of passage as an essential element of a lifelong fraternity experience. 

Broad, unrefined prohibition is an unworkable answer considered respectable only among those who fetishize authority and power – people who have no place in leading a values-driven fraternity experience.

Dog and Pony Show Laws like Pennsylvania’s, which merely bundle already illegal things together with a different context and title, will do nothing to stop deaths due to hazing. They may actually make it worse.