Tyler Gammon looked left and stared down the barrel of a gun. The voice behind the pointed weapon yelled, “Get the [expletive] out of the car, or I’m going to blow your brains out.”

It was a setup and the Burlington Police Department had executed a major drug bust. Gammon had been caught red-handed selling 900 tabs of the hallucinogenic narcotic lysergic acid diethylamide, better known by the acronym LSD.

Within five days, Gammon was processed, jailed and expelled from Elon and back home in Houston. His case had been thrown out on a technicality — the undercover officer on his case had been charged with a DUI, nulling his evidence in the case against Gammon.

Gammon’s arrest in November 2014 made waves on Elon University’s campus, sparking new conversations about the school’s drug culture. According to the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office, Gammon was in possession of 900-1,000 doses of the drug. Nine hundred tabs of an infamous hallucinogen in one’s possession was a concept unheard of.

For many members of the community, it was easy to dismiss the event as atypical of Elon’s campus.

In his mugshot, Gammon stares through a mop of curly brown hair that extends to the small of his back, wearing a Soviet Union style hammer-and-cycle T-shirt. In the photo, he resembles legendary Guns N’ Roses lead guitarist Slash, a stark visual contrast to the ubiquitous preppy male found at Elon.

When Gammon first arrived on Elon’s campus, there were several first impressions that stood out to him. Drugs, he realized, were likely an activity consuming the lives of many college students.

“My family is pretty poor compared to most students at Elon, honestly,” Gammon said. “When I pulled up [before I got busted], all I saw were Audis and beamers, and I showed up in a used, dented, 2004 Chrysler,” Gammon said. “I knew it was a rich kid’s playground, so naturally I expected to see a lot of drugs kicking around.”

Socioeconomic status is an influence

Gammon’s presumptions are backed by numerous studies revealing a disparity in adolescent drug use based on socioeconomic status.

U.S. News, a recognized leader in college rankings, reports that 33.7 percent of full-time undergraduates at Elon receive some kind of need-based financial aid and the average need-based scholarship or grant award is $13,722. This means of the 5,903 undergraduate students at Elon this year, less than 2,000 students receive aid.

According to the Elon Fact Book, the aggregate cost of room and board and tuition fees is $43,170.00, meaning many students come from wealthier upbringings.

According to Psychology Today, in households with an annual income of $150,000 or more, 7 percent of boys are smoking marijuana and getting drunk at least once a month by age 13.

The article went on to say that teens from wealthier upbringings generally have easier and safer access to substances, quality fake IDs and lots of money to fund the entire operation.

Barny Guthrie of Clinical Partners, a British psychotherapy group, serves as an adviser to many addicts. He said rich kids are often absent of “real-world” determination because their wealth causes them to fail in transitioning to adulthood.

“The ability to pay the rent and show you can cut it builds confidence and give you a reason to get out of bed,” Guthrie said. “One of the joys of working is that you can take pride in your own achievements.”

The phenomenon is so common that The Hills Center of Los Angeles, a world-renowned drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, offers programming dedicated to treating the physical and psychological issues driving substance abuse in young adults from a wealthier upbringing.

On its website, The Hills Center lists some of the most prominent factors that lead to higher rates of drug use in well-off adolescents. Factors include pressures to succeed academically and professionally, an unusually disposable income, disjointed families and a “desire to be perfect.”

Students weigh in on prevalence of drugs

“There is a problem, without a doubt,” said freshman Collin McDonald. “It’s pretty hard to find someone who doesn’t drink — and Xanax use is for sure on the rise.”

Junior Ali Ladner said she feels that the drug climate on campus is typical of boys and especially typical of freshmen students at the university. Through her experience, she also knows that one can find scenes that fit their habits.

“Drinking is part of the college experience, and I don’t think it affects daily life,” Ladner said. “I think people can chose which community they want to be in. But there are a lot of heavy drinkers, and I do feel like there are more drugs here than at other schools. I noticed it more freshman year but not so much because I’m off campus now. Guys tend to do the more hard stuff.”

The Addiction Center, an online rehabilitation facility advisor, lists four central reasons why college students take drugs or abuse alcohol. These include heightened levels of stress, growing course loads, a natural human curiosity for the unknown and peer pressure.

Some turn to depressants like marijuana and alcohol to numb anxieties, but increasingly, students are boosting their academic abilities with both prescribed and illegal stimulants.

According to an article in The Villanovan titled, “Adderall use Spikes on College Campuses,” 34.5 percent of college students nationwide admit to using Adderall without a prescription.

Jana Lynn Patterson, associate vice president for Student Life and dean of Student Health and Wellness, recognizes the threat prescribed drugs like Adderall pose in Elon’s community. 

“Sometimes we have students with pretty severe psychological or mental health situations, and we often see in students that there is sleep deregulation, and that sleep deregulation may be related to drug use, such as the overuse of stimulants,” Patterson said.

Patterson also said some students using prescribed drugs to treat attention deficit conditions may share their medications with friends.

“We sometimes have students that voluntarily share their drugs, and that’s against the law,” Patterson said. “So we do try to include that in our education efforts, but we don’t know who’s coming in with those meds ... We hope whoever prescribed them those medications is also helping them to understand those risks in a collegiate atmosphere.”

Much of Patterson’s concerns are focused on the ways students tend to overlook long-term consequences of chronic drug use, even use of “soft drugs” like marijuana.

“We try and help people understand,” Patterson said. “We want them to understand that marijuana is a depressant. The use of marijuana can affect your motivation. And you’re paying a lot to go here, so why are you going to smoke something that makes you not motivated or affects your ability to be successful?”

This September, USA Today College reported that daily marijuana use in college students is at its highest rate in 35 years. Today, one in 17 college students smoke a form of the drug at least 20 times a month.

Bruce Nelson, director of Counseling Services, said Elon health officials and counselors do not keep record of the university’s illicit substance abuse statistics. But he did argue that finding marijuana at Elon was too easy in Gammon’s case.

“My second day at Elon, a friend bought a half-zip (half ounce),” Gammon said. “He brought me to where he bought it, the Trollinger Apartments. And it was a trap house. Right in the middle of the room, kids were weighing out multiple ounces, and from there on I had access.” 

Alcohol abuse remains common

College students and alcohol use have gone hand in hand for several decades.

The national drinking age was 18 until President Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act July 17, 1984. The act punished any state that allowed persons below 21 years of age to purchase or possess alcohol by reducing annual federal highway funding by 10 percent.

Since that time, alcohol has remained on college campuses. Patterson said the legislation has led to increases in binge drinking — drinking large quantities over short periods with the goal of quick intoxication.

“Students do a lot more ‘pregaming’ now because it’s not legal to drink publicly, so students drink before they go out,” Patterson said. “If a group is heading to a party, they drink as much as they can beforehand because they don’t want to get in trouble. I feel that piece of legislation has changed the way college students drink and has increased what we consider high-risk drinking.”

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, four out of five college students drink alcohol. Half of the students also consume through binge drinking.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 25 percent of college student between the ages of 18 and 24 suffer academically due to alcohol. Graphic by Stephanie Hays.

Of college students between the ages of 18 and 24, 1,825 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, according to the NIAAA. Six hundred ninety thousand students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking, 97,000 students are victims of alcohol related sexual abuse, 599,000 sustain unintentional injuries while under the influence of alcohol and 25 percent of college students suffer academically as a consequence of alcohol consumption.

Elon emphasizes education

In combatting the issues of substance abuse, particularly that of alcohol, Elon puts a lot of energy into education as opposed to enforcement.

One educational initiative is AlcoholEdu, a required online course for all incoming students. According to EverFi, AlcoholEdu’s developer, “AlcoholEdu for College is an interactive online program designed to reduce the negative consequences of alcohol amongst students. It is the most widely used alcohol prevention program in higher education.”

Patterson said the university targets incoming students because they are the ones most at risk of engaging in risky behaviors.

“We focus certainly on the first six weeks for all students,” Patterson said. “We call it the ‘Red Zone.’ With students coming out of being home and having unprecedented new personal freedoms, sometimes you’re going to see alcohol and other drug use go up because suddenly they’re not being monitored. Suddenly, they can go out Thursday night and they feel, ‘Who cares if I come home drunk?’”

Student independence creates problems

Despite all efforts, some students will slip through the cracks and ignore educational programming.

Nevertheless, Patterson insists the university has a responsibility to provide basic education.

“Even if you partake in drug and alcohol use and are not caught, we still want to educate so you can be making these decisions to better yourself.”

Some, like Gammon, feel that new-found freedoms are always abused, especially where uninhibited experiences meet a yearning for answers.

“I think people do drugs in college because they’re away from authority figures and people in their lives that would get down on them for that,” Gammon said. “In college, getting drugs is like walking up to a water fountain. If you have the money, the drugs will flow. And when people realize things like weed are not the ‘devil,’ the red ribbon comes right off.”