Plumes, Pills, and Potions

While the use of drugs is prevalent among teenagers across schools, the stressful and rigorous environment of Stuyvesant fuels its own unique drug culture among students who feel the need to use certain substances as a social tool, an ability enhancer, or an escape.

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By Joanna Meng

From an outsider’s perspective, Stuyvesant High School, the Department of Education’s beacon of inquiry, productivity, and achievement, should be fundamentally incompatible with brain-altering chemicals. Such bright and accomplished students would never stoop so low as to sample sativa or smack. In reality, Stuyvesant is no exception from the reality of high schoolers using drugs. Some after-school clouds at Rockefeller Park are so big they could be studied meteorologically, and often, the bathrooms get so saturated with cannabinoids that even the walls get a little stoned. It leaves us to wonder, why do some Stuyvesant students turn to drugs?

While the majority of students have not tried any drugs, a little more than a quarter of the respondents of The Spectator’s Senior Survey for the class of 2022 have used marijuana, to some extent, and a little less than seven percent have used prescription stimulants (study drugs). The reasons behind drug use vary from student to student and from drug to drug, but the common themes of focus, distraction, and social pressure act as overarching motivations. While the other factors may be prominent, the primary purpose for drug use is as a social tool. Most social drug use is relatively light, with a nicotine or marijuana vape offered up in a circle outside of school, attracting newcomers and giving them a greater predilection toward continuing their drug habit for non-social reasons. Anonymous freshman A recounted their first time, saying, “My friends were passing around a kart [marijuana vape], but I was tired so I said no [...] but at that point, everyone was just laughing and sitting looking at each other high as [expletive]. I [expletive] felt so left out so I just snatched that [expletive]’s kart out of her mouth and took a hit for myself.” This freshman’s experience shows how first-time users can be inducted into the fold of drug use by implicit peer pressure—the chemical properties were totally irrelevant and the drug was merely a social prop used to fit in. The student went on to say, “I didn’t even enjoy being high that day. It just felt nice to not be the only one not high.”

Marijuana, nicotine, and alcohol are the main contrabands of choice for the social drug user; passing around a bottle or a blunt is both an access point to certain social circles and a way to loosen up and unwind with friends. Anonymous freshman A described “linking with drunk friends” as “more fluid, relaxing, and natural.”

Anonymous junior B waved away worries about infrequent social drug use, saying, “Look, you do you. But at the end of the day, I will only stop you if you are abusing it [drugs]. If you are doing it only with friends and it’s at a party or at a house here and there, I’d gladly take a sip with you.”

Despite the junior’s relaxed attitude, social reasons are also the central factors that lead Stuyvesant students to do hard drugs. Anonymous junior C confessed, “I know seniors [who] do cocaine and juniors [who] do cocaine; not regularly, but they still do it.” Hard drug use may be an exceptional occurrence amongst the student body, but it is still a factor that students consider when evaluating whether or not they will use drugs.

Social situations may be the gateway to more serious drug use, but schoolwork and stress are the most common cause of students’ use of everyday drugs. From energy drinks to yerba mate to cold brew to Starbucks and breakfast cart Folgers, around 40 percent of students, according to the senior survey, have some degree of dependency on the world’s most pervasive stimulant: caffeine. There are approximately two comically-large, Big Gulp-sized plastic cups full of iced coffee in any active classroom in the school, and nobody bats an eye. Our synthetic sleep-replacement beverages have become normalized. While the caffeination of our waking hours and truncation of our sleeping hours are too commonplace to realistically combat, there is a still more deleterious study drug that circulates among devoted crammers.

Adderall, which is an amphetamine prescribed to treat ADHD, also has the power to crush the plague of procrastination. An anonymous junior, not diagnosed with ADHD, cited its induction of hyperfocus as the reason that they indulged; “Adderall not just allows me to stay up all night but also allows me to work a hundred times faster and more efficiently.” Stuyvesant is a place of unforgiving rigor, and students can feel as if they need chemical enhancements to stay afloat in their deluge of extracurriculars, tests, crushes, family, friends, projects, homework, and class time. Their cardiovascular health is a sacrament in the temple of grades, and they fuel their unwavering devotion with either five cups of coffee or five milligrams of adderall on a crucial study day.

While some choose to tackle the Herculean task of Stuyvesant’s schoolwork with a one-up from focus drugs, others use remedies as distractions from their stress. Most commonly, marijuana and alcohol provide escape routes for students who would rather remain inebriated than confront the emotional burden of school and life. One anonymous junior said, “Weed is not chemically addictive but it makes the day go by faster, it makes classes go by easier, and it makes you feel better.” Stress puts students in a proverbial box. They may not be able to meet their expectations and break free of the box, but with the power of marijuana, they can hotbox it while their grades decline.

However, most interviewees did not respond to questions desultorily from behind sunken eyes and with unbrushed hair; they were well-composed, articulate, and seemed like they had already invested a great deal of thought into their substance use. When questioned on the delineation between healthy and unhealthy drug use, one anonymous junior said, “As long as it’s not a crutch, you’re good. As long as you’re using it to help you succeed, as long as it lifts you up instead of tearing you down, I think drugs are fine.”

Other students mostly agreed that moderation is key to a balanced drug intake, and that it should be used as a way to prevent stress from bleeding into productivity as opposed to a subsuming addiction that detracts from it. An anonymous junior said, “There [are] two ways of doing drugs. I think there’s having fun—so much fun that I can’t stop having fun—and for stress or mental health.”

No high school is exempt from students that occasionally get high, but overall, Stuyvesant has some unique traits that change the ways in which its student body achieves such a high. Though the stress and rigor of Stuyvesant act as fuel for the use of drugs, one anonymous junior said, “I think [the culture around drug usage] would have been worse if I went to another school.”

Drugs can become a problem when they end up becoming an addiction. One junior explained, “When you start doing drugs, it helps you feel better; when you stop, you’re never going to feel as good as you did when you were on drugs. It’s like an unattainable high that you’ll always be feeling.” They concluded, somewhat unceremoniously, that “drugs are addictive.” Whether taken as a tool for focus, as a distraction, or as part of a social activity, drug use is a part of Stuyvesant culture and will remain common among students who need to escape an environment of sleep deprivation, hours of studying and homework, and feelings of isolation.