s cops shut down the Homecoming party in the Chancellor backlot a block from Penn’s campus, hundreds of students swarm onto the surrounding streets. One group files into a white limousine.
A student directs the driver to 37th and Spruce streets while another starts cutting lines on his iPhone.
“Fuck, are we here already?” he asks as he rolls up a crisp bill. The driver takes another lap around the block.
One backseat passenger lowers his nose to the phone and does a line. He passes the bill to his friend for his turn.
Minutes later, they head out onto Locust, just as they will for class on Monday.
For certain Penn students, cocaine is ubiquitous. But for the rest, the normality of Penn’s cocaine culture is abnormal. Students' perceptions of cocaine perpetuate this dichotomy: while some turn their backs on the drug because of its consequences, others embrace its associations with wealth and exclusivity.
After a late night of partying at the end of his sophomore spring, Charlie*, now a senior, headed back to an older fraternity brother’s house on Beige Block. When he walked in, a group was doing lines, and when his fraternity brother offered him some, Charlie tried it.
Holy shit, this is fucking fantastic.
They killed the rest and each wanted more. Charlie hightailed it to Fresh Grocer’s ATM, where he withdrew his last $80 to pitch in for the next batch. He railed four or five lines that night.
Everything made sense—his jittery friends, the locked rooms—when Charlie "made that big jump," as he describes it, and tried cocaine.
“You sit on the sidelines enough and you watch people do it enough,” he reflects. “Then finally sophomore year, I was like, ‘You know what? Put me in coach, I’ll try it.’ No one in this house had died. Everyone does well in school. It hasn’t changed people’s lives. It hasn’t ruined them. It hasn’t done anything. They just clearly have fun for a few hours in a night, so I might as well do it as well.”
“Now we’re on the other side,” he jokes with his friends. “We’re on the dark side now.”
Although he won’t buy it from a dealer, Charlie doesn’t object if his friends remove framed photos from the walls to use as a surface for blow.
The Penn administration doesn’t deny that students here do cocaine. “It’s one of those things that exists in pockets, so certain social circles might never ever see it or come across it or be a part of it,” says Noelle Melartin, director of the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives. “In other social circles, it’s very much present and very much part of a normal social life. So you know, it’s either very popular in your friend group or it’s not.”
But cocaine use isn’t simply confined to certain social circles—it’s circles within these circles.
Lying on her back on the green carpet of her off–campus house, Audrey*, a junior and regular coke user, explains that the drug’s negative image creates an us–or–them mindset, even among her closest friends. These common internal divisions within groups transform the coke culture into “this weird club where all the members don’t even know their own members.”
Coming to Penn, Audrey never thought she'd do cocaine. Then, she tried it in the bathroom of Fire & Ice one night her freshman year and realized over time that “it’s really not that big of a deal.”
“I didn’t notice people were missing [at parties] until I was part of the crew that was missing,” she says. It just sobers her up and lets her stay out until 5am.
Cocaine has polarizing effects at Penn. For people on the outside, the drug is as mysterious as it is invisible. Only after they’re exposed to the drug does its prevalence become clear.
* * *
David*, a junior and former drug dealer, used to store his cocaine in a safe box in his closet. One of his fraternity brothers sold drugs from the room he lives in now, so David inherited the business. He only planned to undertake it for the short–run. Plus, he doesn’t like cocaine—selling was just an easy way for him to make money and meet new people without having to leave his desk. Last semester, David sold Molly, shrooms, weed, Adderall, Xanax and coke.
“Coke use is as a whole is a lot more widespread than people would expect,” David says. While he had regular customers, he still receives random texts from people he knew freshman year looking to buy. “Hey, I heard you sell cocaine,” they’ll ask. “Can I maybe get a bit?”
He estimates that twenty percent of students aren’t “freaked out at all” by coke use, while “a good 80 percent of the school isn’t normalized to it yet.”
"It’s like six degrees of separation. [Coke users] could literally be anybody on this campus."
The Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives chose not to share its survey data on the prevalence of cocaine use at Penn for this article.
“I know a lot of people who—they’re just terrified of it. They think it’s terrible and the people who do it are bad people,” says Mara*, a freshman who started dealing cocaine at Penn when she “couldn’t find it.” “But in all honestly, it’s like six degrees of separation. [Coke users] could literally be anybody on this campus and you wouldn’t know.”
Mara sells to the most unlikely customers—engineers, straight–A Wharton students and even TAs.
“You think your TA’s knowledgeable, you think they’re really smart. They are,” Mara says. “But what they do to party or what they do to be such a great TA could be cocaine—and you don’t know that.”
What makes cocaine unsuspecting isn’t just who does it, but where, when and why.
“I haven’t found any drug that is as effective as coke to keep me up, keep me focused, keep me going for as long as I need it,” Mara says. After staying up late to work and powering through the next day jam–packed with classes, she might do a line to get through a 7pm meeting. “I know people who do lines of coke in Huntsman, just in the bathrooms,” she says. “And I know people who do coke in the carrels in Van Pelt.”
While David used to deal from his room, Mara isn’t afraid to deal publicly. “I’ve given people cocaine on Locust,” she says. Once, Mara picked up a vitamin bottle packed with a baggie of cocaine from her dealer near Lyn’s food truck on Spruce Street.
“Yeah,” she says, “‘casual’ is the way I’d put it.”
Tilyn Bell, a junior and criminology major, guessed that half of one percent of Penn students use cocaine—a strikingly small estimate in the eyes of campus coke users.
Negative stigmas and perceptions keep the drug hidden from students like Tilyn, a member of the Christian student group Cru, who says she’s never seen it at Penn.
“I just don’t think I run in the right circles to see it,” says Tyler Roesler, a Wharton junior from Wisconsin. “I think it’s because I come from lower income, and my friends tend to be [too] because the activities that [we] can do then line up better. I’m not big into fraternity or Greek life at all. It’s just never been my scene really.”
The illegality of the drug, coupled with its high potential for addiction and biological consequences, makes it unattractive to many Penn students.
“At Penn, we’re supposed to be some of the brightest people in this nation, and cocaine is such a bad idea on so many levels that I think it’s crazy that so many Penn students are using it,” says Tilyn. “I don’t think they’re bad people. I think that they’re probably good people making really bad decisions.”
“How irresponsible are you in the effort to have fun?” asks Natalie*, a sophomore in a sorority who’s seen many friends abuse cocaine. The first time she watched one of her sorority sisters do coke, she started crying.
“I think it’s almost pathetic to a certain extent. That you spend that much money—that you risk that much of your body, you risk your life, to have fun,” she says.
Natalie isn’t paranoid. Cocaine is a stimulant that produces a high characterized by numbness and euphoria. The biological toll of cocaine use on the body amounts to a laundry list of phrases so long it’s almost meaningless. Right after doing a line, users can experience a high heart rate, muscle spasms, convulsions, anxiety, hallucinations or respiratory failure.
And if they continue to use over time: rare autoimmune diseases, reproductive damage, suicidal thoughts, sudden death, and so on.
In the long run, cocaine use leads to neurological and genetic changes. A protein known as deltaFosB accumulates in the reward pathway known as the nucleus accumbens. These changes can modify gene expression and increase a user’s susceptibility to developing addictive behaviors.
“The more and more you use the drug, the more and more the more of these gene alterations you can have,” says Dr. Hayley Nelson, Penn neuroscientist and Biological Basis of Behavior lecturer teaching Drugs, Brain and Mind.
Humans exist because of reward pathway in the brain that reinforces behaviors necessary for survival, Nelson says. “These behaviors feel good so that you’re more likely to do them again,” she explains. “Drugs of abuse and addiction...hijack that system. They go and they basically trick you...into thinking now you need that substance for survival.”
* * *
“Homecoming, it fucking snows in this house,” Charlie says. Sprawled on his bedroom couch, he recounts the scene last fall when his fraternity’s alumni returned and dumped their share of cocaine on the table. Charlie had never seen so much coke in his life. He figures it was worth close to $1,000.
“I witnessed an alum do a line that was probably that long,” he says, spacing his fingers about seven inches apart. “He challenged himself. He was like, ‘lets make it eight.’”
As the newest pledge class, the sophomores were astounded by the wild stories alumni shared of doing cocaine as students.
“You want to be that guy who sells a $225 million dollar company and flies in private jets. And how did he get there? Well, he did cocaine in college,” Charlie continues. “It’s like all the lifestyles that you want to have in the future start by doing cocaine in college.”
The image of cocaine as a luxurious party drug is neither fabricated nor new.
At the height of the cocaine epidemic in the 1980s, cocaine was a drug for the upper class, says Penn criminology professor Dr. Emily Owens, who teaches a course called Drugs and Gangs. Today, the drug sells for about $80 a gram at Penn.
“Homecoming, it fucking snows in this house.”
A university survey of the class of 2014 found that only 13 percent of students’ parents earned under $50,000 a year. Thirty–eight percent of Penn students estimated their parents earned over $200,000 a year, a statistic similar to other Ivies.
The cocaine culture here “might have a lot to do with the demographics of the Penn student body,” Owens suggests. “The upper class wealthier students see this as an elite party drug. It’s a white powder, you’re snorting it, it looks pure and clean.”
Coke users at Penn don’t necessarily embrace these associations out in the open.
At a late night party at Charlie’s fraternity house, a guest started doing coke on the pool table, setting off a number of the brothers in an angry rant. “I got so fucking pissed…why the fuck would you ever let some asshole do cocaine on our pool table?” he says. “For anybody else in that room who doesn’t know who we are, that very well in their minds could’ve been us. And do we want that image as a house?”
They don’t. They keep cocaine behind closed doors.
When Jason*, a sophomore in a fraternity, wants to do a line at a party, he’ll exchange a knowing glance with some of his friends around the room. Within a matter of minutes, they’ll head upstairs and grab what they have—ideally a block, since that’s probably more pure than powder.
Crush it to break it apart. Line it up. Rail it. Then they’ll head back downstairs and act like it didn’t happen.
“You totally know who’s ‘in’ and who’s not,” Jason says. “It’s a very uncomfortable feeling to be approached by someone who’s loud and usually drunk and who’s like, ‘Hey, do you have [blow]?’…You know that they’re not in it because they enjoy the experience and they enjoy the company that comes with the ‘club.’ They’re in it because they think it’s cool.”
In Jason’s experience, cocaine’s association with money increases its allure. A hundred dollars can buy enough cocaine for three to four people, and for Penn students, that’s not a whole lot of money for recreational use, he says.
“If there’s one cardinal sin in America, it’s being poor,” he contends. “People hate to admit that they are not at a certain social station. I think that for a lot of people, doing cocaine confirms that they are above something.”
Selling cocaine afforded David the life that most people buying cocaine have. He makes enough money working on campus to feed himself, “but selling the drugs just gave me enough money to blend in with the people who actually had the money,” he says. “We’d go out and blow money, and [I’d] pretend I could blow money with people who could actually blow money.”
For David, the desire to keep up is just a product of Penn’s social atmosphere built upon extravagant displays of wealth.
Bill Alexander, director of Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services, can attest to this. He identifies students’ desires to keep up with their peers—even when it comes to illegal drugs—as common.
“It’s hard to fit into a fast–moving cocaine crowd—they feel like they can’t keep up without spending money they don’t have,” he explains. “If you’re gonna be accepted into those crowds, you have to move fast.”
But not all users are just faces in this fast–moving crowd. Similar to stepping out of a club to bum a cigarette, cocaine offers a level of intimacy beneath its party drug image.
“It’s weird, because some of the most personal experiences of trust occur when you’re doing something you can’t tell anyone else about,” Jason says. “It’s like these bonds between people on campus who do it—this trust that ‘I’m not gonna rat on you and you’re not gonna rat on me.’”
On Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, Mara started partying at 9:30am. By 11:30, she and her friend decided they needed some coke as a pick–me–up. That lasted them another three hours until they were looking for another bump. By the end of the night, she had done at least four lines—a lot to an “unseasoned” user, but reasonable for someone like Mara, who says she “knows her physical limits.”
Students who use cocaine view the consequences as minimal, and many of their justifications fall back on a simple concept: control.
Mara knows when she needs a break. Long after her last bump, she’ll still have too much energy, feel anxious and can’t do anything to stop it. Then, it’s just a matter of removing herself.
“Everyone's been at that point even if they haven’t said it out loud: ‘Oh, I’ve done too much,’” Jason says. “And you just need to remove yourself from the party. Go take a walk. The worst thing you can do is be around people who want to do it more. You just need to cool off. You’ll be fine.”
Students who use exercise control in different ways. Most who look forward to doing three or four lines over any given weekend won’t use drugs harder than cocaine. Period.
“I definitely have a line drawn in the sand that I’m never going to cross, and if I ever do, I’m going to need to take some kind of action,” Mara says. “I’d never do heroin. I would never do meth. I would never do crack.” She starts counting on her hands as Saxbys music blasts in the background. She’ll do painkillers—“sure, why not”—there’s the first finger. Adderall, yeah, that’s finger two. Cocaine, yes. Pot, yep, and Molly, yep. Only five drugs, she insists.
“They’re pretty controlled substances, and if you are knowledgeable about how they work and how to use them…you can pretty much have a controlled high every time you take them,” she says. “But I would just never really trust street drugs.”
The sentiment is widespread. Cocaine is “the last stop on the train of drugs and experiences that are acceptable within Penn,” Jason says. “I think it’s also the last thing that’s accepted by pop culture.”
Their mechanisms of control—understanding how the drug affects the body and knowing when to stop—veil the consequences of cocaine use for students.
The refrain among cocaine users at Penn—“I know when to stop”— raises eyebrows of those who don’t partake.
“I think a lot of people don’t want to believe cocaine’s effects might be out of their hands, especially because Penn students are really intelligent and have the capability of understanding the biology,” says Tiffany Young, a college junior and Penn cheerleader raised in New Mexico. “It’s not something you can control just by understanding.”
* * *
Nicole*, now a junior, went to rehab for the second time the summer after her sophomore year—on her own accord and dime.
Her first time came in high school, when she went solely for cocaine use. During her second visit, her treatment focused on alcohol, but drinking and doing coke go hand–in–hand for Nicole. She knows she drinks “exponentially more because of drugs.” Twice her freshman year, she was rushed to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania by MERT.
As much as Nicole hoped to separate herself from cocaine when she came to Penn, not using made her feel left out.
“If you don’t get involved in that scene, you’ll literally be alone. I’ve been to formals where literally everyone’s upstairs, and if you’re not in it, you’re sitting by yourself, drinking,” she says. “I was just like, ‘Well, I’ve already done this, it’s not a big deal.’ And I thought I could keep a good hold on it because I knew [my] tipping point.”
But she relapsed.
Returning to rehab helped Nicole gain clarity after the “dark time” of coke use during her sophomore spring, she says.
After a hard withdrawal, she went through a “recovery and forgiveness period.” She’d sacrificed her friends for drugs and alcohol, so she wrote them letters, apologizing and asking for forgiveness for her harmful behavior. She got the life pause and introspection she needed.
But she hasn’t entirely cut herself off from using, either.
When one of Nicole’s good friends visited Penn, the pair did a “celebratory” line together. “I’ve done it once or twice this semester, and maybe twice last semester,” she swears. “One line will not impact my body. I have too much of a drug tolerance, so it’s not even going to send me down to want to do more.”
“I think a lot of people don’t want to believe cocaine’s effects might be out of their hands."
The chance of a Penn student facing prison time, getting expelled or ending up in rehab might be small, but the consequences are all possible for students using cocaine—regardless of whether or not they recognize them as risks.
Students found by Penn possessing or selling cocaine can face consequences ranging from a warning to expulsion. Penn may turn them over to law enforcement agencies or notify their parents.
Under Pennsylvania law, possessing cocaine is a misdemeanor punishable by a year in prison and/or a $5,000 fine. Selling cocaine is a felony that can be met with 15 years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine. Selling to a minor doubles the penalty.
“The University does not take on a parental role in relation to its students but rather assumes that students are young adults who can make their own decisions and take basic responsibility for their own lives,” the University Alcohol and Drug Policy states.
“I don’t think the school would ever try to shut down the ‘safe’ drug operations here,” says David. “If that would happen, then kids would still be buying them, just from much less safe places. Penn’s cops’ roles aren’t to eliminate the drug dealing from our school—they’re to make sure that kids are buying from the right places.”
Students confine and control cocaine use within certain social circles in an attempt to mitigate its potential consequences. In their eyes, Penn does play a paternal role in keeping them safe.
Penn’s medical amnesty policy, which protects students from disciplinary action if they call Penn to ask for help with substance use emergencies, extends to cocaine and all other hard drugs.
“We want people to feel that they can and should do the right thing and not make that call because they’re afraid of getting into trouble,” Noelle Melartin at Penn’s alcohol and drug office says. “Because it is that call that could actually save a person’s life.”
Penn students might perceive the University’s cocaine policy as lax, but Penn administrators maintain a strong view: cocaine on campus is a problem.
“We certainly don’t want drug dealers on campus. If their activities are becoming bigger and bigger, and they build a kingdom, they will face the scrutiny of outside law enforcement as well,” Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush says.
A former Philadelphia narcotics officer, Rush has seen the effects of cocaine use and dealing first–hand: emotional breakdowns, overdosing, prison. She explains that Penn Police almost never see cocaine, but was quick to condemn the drug, especially among young college students.
“You’re playing Russian roulette with your Ivy League education,” Rush says.
* * *
Not all college kids think they’re invincible. Just because the dividing line between users and non–users has two sides doesn’t mean crossing it is a permanent choice.
“I think there’s going to be a certain point where I just feel like, look, this can’t happen anymore. I can’t do any more coke,” Mara says. “I don’t want to be a vegetable or have to be on a respirator or die.”
Many students will stop, but cocaine’s established presence at Penn will guarantee others replace them. Whether addicted to the image or the drug, it’s easy for someone to get caught in cocaine’s self–perpetuating cycle.
Jason caught himself.
He decided to take a break this semester. No more drugs, no more alcohol.
“I just don’t need to have the type of social experiences that I used to. I have a girlfriend now. I enjoy spending time with her. I have all these awesome books that I like to read,” he says. “I feel like I’ve enjoyed a lot more stuff without it.”
It’s strange for him to think about how different things are without spending $600 a month on cocaine, without quietly sneaking off at a downtown and without walking off the jitters at four in the morning. Stepping back afforded him the luxury of a normal life again.
“There’s something uniquely satisfying about being tired at the end of the day and going to bed,” Jason says. “That’s enough for me.”
*Names have been changed to protect students’ identities.
Jill Castellano is a junior from Westchester, New York majoring in criminology and psychology. She is the Managing Editor and Editor–in–Chief of the Daily Pennsylvanian.
Casey Quackenbush is a sophomore from Greenwich, Connecticut majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. She is the Ego editor of 34th Street Magazine.