Last weekend, two of our most covert reporters, freshmen Dan Loud and Tom Nowlan went undercover to learn more about heroin use at Penn. Eh, who are we kidding, they just went out normally, students have no qualms talking to us about drug habits.
Philadelphia, PA- A dingy frat basement. Lou Reed plays loudly through the speakers. The dancefloor is packed with slumped over bodies.
This scene is extremely familiar if you are the 82% of the Penn student body who uses heroin on a regular basis. Use of “smack” or “H” permeates our campus culture. It’s not uncommon to overhear some students on Locust Walk discussing the previous night’s antics or for a professor to make a snide remark mid-lecture about the kid nodding off in the back row.
“I actually tried it for the first time in eighth grade at night at a beach with some friends,” says Jessica Abrams, a College sophomore. “Some older guys had stolen some from their parents. I felt so cool.”
Abrams went on to use the drug “very occasionally” throughout high school.
“Every now and then, someone would bring it out- at junior prom, on a random lazy Sunday afternoon. All in all though, it really wasn’t a big part of my identity.”
But Abrams was unprepared for the non-stop, socially ingrained culture of heroin use she found in University City.
“I can’t tell you how many times my suitemates go out on a random Wednesday,” said Abrams. “I’m all for responsible use, but, I mean, don’t they have homework to do?”
Nearly every Penn student has had a taste of the campus opiate culture- weekends are filled with heroin-themed social events, from “BYONs (bring your own needles)” to “se-date nights.”
According to the 2012 Campus Wellness survey, 93% of students have used heroin at least once in the past year. 82% consider themselves “frequent users” while 55% use at least once per day.
“Honestly, saying no is a major social faux pas,” said Wharton junior Daniel Harris. “If you’re not shooting up, you’re not going out.”
Harris is a member of the Eta Eta Eta fraternity, which throws heroin-related parties nearly every weekend.
“Smack is a large part of what we do here socially at HHH” Harris said. “But it’s not all we do. Fraternities get a bad rap, but our usage rates are no different than any other student group on campus.”
However, many Penn Quakers have made the choice to seek out alternative forms of social interaction.
Mary Jacobson, a Wharton senior, saw how pervasive the drug was on campus when she arrived four years ago, but sought to find other, more unique niches on campus.
“Plenty of my friends do heroin,” Jacobson said. “But it’s just never been for me.”
So, rather than spending her weekends following the herds of students out past 40th street, Jacobson passes her free time rehearsing with her a cappella group, mentoring West Philadelphia students, or smoking meth with her friends in a trailer in the Poconos.
“It’s hard being a bit of an outsider,” Jacobson laments. “But I never question my individuality for a minute.”
Still, heroin users are everywhere on campus – from the varsity sports teams to those involved with religious life to those in social activism organizations such as Students against Marihuana.
So the next time you make the trek to Camden to pick up a supply or loot HUP for clean needles, know that you’re in good company. But never forget that here at Penn, work still comes first.
“I’ve certainly done my fair share of H,” Abrams said. “But I am constantly in awe of the fascinating array of people, resources, and opportunities here at Penn.”
“To me, being a Quaker is the greatest high of all.”