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Prioritizing Student Safety: Medical Amnesty Policies

This might come as a surprise, but some students use alcohol and drugs recreationally — GASP! Who would’ve thought that a bunch of teenagers and early-twenty-somethings living away from their families for the first time would do such a thing? 

You may have noticed a hint of sarcasm just now. After all, students using drugs and alcohol isn’t news. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction and Stats Canada, 83% of 18-24-year-olds had used alcohol in the last year, and 26% of 20-24 year-olds had used illegal substances. What might come as a surprise is that students often avoid going to the hospital — when they need to go — because they’re worried about academic sanctions for underage drinking or illegal drug use.

It’s time we prioritized the well-being of students, even when they’ve done something wrong. It’s time we implemented a medical amnesty policy on university campuses to help protect those in drug- or alcohol-induced emergency situations. The point here isn’t to be permissive of substance abuse or to say it’s wise to engage in this behaviour. The point is that this is happening whether we like it or not. Whether it’s used as an escape, for exploration, or simply for enjoyment, there is an undeniable culture of substance use and abuse among students. 

Inevitably, then, there are incidents where students’ health is put at risk and their lives in danger. This phenomenon isn’t showing signs of getting better, either. Opioid-related deaths doubled in Ontario between 1991 and 2007. Prescriptions for Oxycodone increased by 850% during that period. And across Canada, individuals aged 15-24 now make up 60% of illicit drug users. Students continue to use these substances, even if they’re illegal. So here’s what we need to ask ourselves: how universities best offer support and emergency services to those in dangerous situations after they’ve used drugs or alcohol?

There seems to be a generational divide in how we answer that question, and in how we look at punishment and changing student behaviours. The traditional way is to simply ban alcohol and drug use; but history has shown that this just drives the behavior underground and doesn’t change the frequency of the behavior. The new way of thinking is to develop an understanding of the problem itself and the root causes that lead to the behavior, and then to develop solutions that address those causes. 

I don’t claim to know what drives people to drugs and alcohol — it’s a complex issue, and it’s different for every person. But I do know that banning it, and turning your back on it, will not stop the behavior from happening. So, in this social landscape of secrecy surrounding drug and alcohol use, it begs the question: what should one do when they are in an emergency situation after consuming illegal substances? Do they call emergency services and face the consequences of their actions, or do they stay quiet and hope that they somehow get better on their own? For students in a drug- or alcohol-related emergency, fear of punishment is often a major deterrent to seeking help. 

Outside of post-secondary campuses, those in substance abuse emergencies are often encouraged to call 911. Washington state passed a law to encourage more people to call for medical care after a suspected overdose. It required EMS personnel and police to regard the care of the patient as a top priority, rather than drug confiscation or arrest. This way of thinking led Canada’s government to pass the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act in 2017. Much like Good Samaritan policies in other countries, Canadian law offers some legal protection to those seeking medical attention when they’ve overdosed. 

Unfortunately, as many students know, institutions across Canada are lagging behind the government’s efforts in this area. Many campuses don’t have a medical amnesty or Good Samaritan policy written into their student code of conduct, which makes them more punitive than federal law when it comes to drug- or alcohol-related emergency situations. So even if students are protected under federal law, punishments under their student codes of conduct may still deter them from calling emergency services on campus. A Cornell University study showed that student fear of punishment in emergency situations dropped 61% after a medical amnesty policy was implemented. 

Some might argue that a medical amnesty policy would be more permissive of substance abuse — that it would actually make the problem worse by giving students a green light to consume substances. But several studies conducted at American universities with medical amnesty policies in place show that these policies don’t lead to increased consumption of illegal substances; what they do is increase the number of students who seek medical help when they need it.

It’s time to shift our thinking, because banning substances just isn’t working. It’s putting people close to us in danger, and it’s getting in the way of productive change. What we need to do, instead, is shift to a more supportive framework that considers the root causes of this issue and creates solutions that address those causes. There are many details we’d need to figure out at individual institutions when developing a medical amnesty policy for campuses. Would there be a follow up meeting after a student went to the hospital for alcohol or drug use? Would a medical amnesty policy protect just the person in danger, or everyone involved (e.g. a friend who called 911)?  What substances would this policy apply to, and what defines an “emergency situation”? These questions will each need their own discussion. But, first, we need to change how we view student drug and alcohol use, particularly when it leads to medical emergencies. We need policy changes that prioritize student safety and create lasting change in student behaviour.