Written by Aaron Bailey
In response to the worsening opioid overdose crisis, medical professionals and community activists have recommended addressing substance use, misuse and abuse as health issues through the adoption of a harm reduction approach. Calls for supervised consumption facilities, medication assisted treatment programs, and the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use have characterized this recommendation. This approach has been shown to be integral in saving lives while federal and provincial governments toil to develop appropriate policy responses.
While the scope and extent of the tragedy created by this overdose crisis cannot be understated, post-secondary institutions can and should learn from the public health strategies that are being deployed against it by extrapolating a harm reduction approach to substance use onto campus settings.
According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, a harm reduction approach to substance use “incorporates a spectrum of strategies from safer use, to managed use to abstinence” to meet people who use substances “where they’re at,” in order to address dangerous conditions of use along with the use itself. This strategy acknowledges that abstinence-centred approaches are not realistic for everyone and that many of the harms associated with substance use are preventable.
University campuses across Canada are rapidly becoming familiar with the philosophy of harm reduction. This presents a significant opportunity to improve campus health promotion campaigns.
Queen’s University has gradually adopted a harm reduction approach to substance use, misuse and abuse on campus. Since 2017, the Queen’s Alcohol Working Group has worked to enhance the preexisting Campus Alcohol Policy and introduce amendments supported by Canadian Postsecondary Education Partnership Alcohol Harms framework. Students at Queen’s are also likely to be familiar with the Campus Observation Room, or the “COR”. Intoxicated students that visit the COR can be monitored by a team of trained student volunteers overseen by staff from Hotel Dieu Hospital Detox Centre.
However, we at Queen’s still have much to learn.
Cornell University, Emory University Marquette University, Miami University, The State University of New York at Buffalo, and The State University of New York at Stony Brook have chosen to adopt ‘Good Samaritan Policies.’ Under these policies, individuals who contact university resources in the event of an emergency related to substance use will not face institutional sanctions for the illicit use of said substances. In 2017, The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act became federal law in Canada, applying a similar principle to criminal law.
Unfortunately, the Student Code of Conduct at Queen’s does not include a Good Samaritan stipulation. Students who use substances illicitly may still face sanction under the Non-Academic Misconduct system if they seek emergency medical attention through the use of campus resources. The absence of a Good Samaritan Policy has the potential to penalize students seeking assistance from Campus Security, Student Constables, Residence Staff or First Aid on the Queen’s Campus in the event of an adverse event, like an overdose, related to alcohol or other substances.
When Cornell University implemented their Good Samaritan Policy in 2002, the university took great care to evaluate its effects. Their evaluation showed that students were less likely to avoid calling for help in fear of getting their friends in trouble and were not more likely to use substances.
Representative Alden Torres, an elected member of student government at Queen’s, believes that such a policy is a common sense way of addressing problematic substance use at Queen’s and should be implemented promptly. Representative Torres argues that a Good Samaritan Policy would “help prevent fatalities on campus… [and] give assurance to those seeking help that they won’t be punished by the university”.
Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP), a national non-profit organization dedicated to promoting evidence-based drug policy and harm reduction awareness, believes that Good Samaritan Policies are essential components of a robust campus approach to substance use. This year, their Queen’s University Chapter is encouraging administration to consider the idea. As a current Health Studies student at Queen’s, my decision to establish a campus chapter of CSSDP was influenced by the organization’s commitment to approaching substance use as a public health issue. We hope that by exploring a Good Samaritan Policy, university administration will reaffirm their support of this view.
There is much to be gained and little to lose from approaching substance use in this manner. While Queen’s has demonstrated it’s openness to harm reduction, a Good Samaritan Policy is the logical extension of a student focused health promotion agenda that embraces evidence, pragmatism, and the principle of non-judgement.
Aaron Bailey is a 3rd year Health Studies and Political Studies student at Queen’s University. He is the founder and chapter leader of the Queen’s University Chapter of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
For more information on harm reduction, please see these resources:
- C. March, E. Oviedo-Joekes, E. Perea-Milla, and F. Carrasco. 2006. “Controlled Trial of Prescribed Heroin in the Treatment of Opioid Addiction.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 31 (2): 203-211. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16919749