Op-eds, Opinions

Mlyn ’20, McIntyre ’22: Administration should reverse ban of drug checking program

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Op-ed Contributors
Thursday, October 17, 2019

For years, Brown University Students for Sensible Drug Policy was known on campus primarily for its free and discreet drug checking program. This program allowed Brown students who decided to use recreational drugs to contact an SSDP member, who would use a drug checking kit to evaluate the contents of the substances. It was grounded in principles of harm reduction, and reflected SSDP’s belief that the job of the Brown community is to prioritize the safety and well-being of all students, including those who will inevitably use drugs. Over the years, we would guess that hundreds, if not thousands, of Brown students have taken advantage of the opportunity to be better informed about the substances they were using. This all came to an end when, two days before Spring Weekend in April 2019, the Student Activities Office abruptly shut down the program.

We at SSDP believe that the University was wrong to disband the drug checking program. Far from discouraging students from using drugs, this decision endangers those who will inevitably use them. The University has proven unwilling to find solutions that will keep Brown students informed about the contents of their substances, and its reasons for disbanding the program are misguided. We therefore implore the University to reconsider its ban of SSDP’s drug checking program.

Drug checking is essential to reducing the risk to which Brown students who consume recreational drugs are subject. Our program provided students access to drug checking kits, which were purchased with funds allocated by the Undergraduate Finance Board. These kits contained reagents that test the chemical makeup of many legal and illegal substances. It is essential for drug users to use these kits because recreational drugs are often mixed with adulterants. Many of these adulterants have dangerous effects, including an increased risk of overdose. Using a drug without knowing its contents or potency is like drinking alcohol without knowing whether it is beer, vodka or rubbing alcohol —the consequences of lacking this information are likely to be severe.

Although our kits did not provide a perfectly accurate reading of a substance’s contents, any kind of drug checking is still drastically better than complete guesswork. The extremely powerful opioid fentanyl was found in 7 percent of the cocaine seized in New England in 2017, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Because a lethal dose of fentanyl is only about three milligrams, drug users are significantly more likely to overdose if they do not know that their drug is contaminated with fentanyl. Meanwhile, one study found that of the over 1,000 tablets collected in the United States between 1999 and 2005 which users thought were MDMA (or “Molly,” as it is often called), 46 percent contained no MDMA at all, and another 15 percent contained a blend of MDMA and another psychoactive substance. That is why technologies such as fentanyl test strips and drug checking kits are so important — and why their use was explicitly legalized by the Rhode Island State Legislature in 2018.

Although it may be true that people can best ensure their safety by abstaining from drug use altogether, to expect every college student to do so is unrealistic. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, data from 2011 to 2014 showed that 22.2 percent of full-time college students in the United States had used an illicit drug in the month before the survey was conducted.. This makes it clear that college students are using drugs in extremely high proportions. Harm reduction programs recognize this fact and seek to reduce the risks associated with the inevitable student drug use.

When opting to disband the program, SAO gave us fair criticism of some mistakes that SSDP made. We fully acknowledge these mistakes. For example, our advertisement for the program last year read “Make sure your drugs are safe.” The kits we used were not perfectly accurate, and even if they were, it was our mistake to imply that drug use can ever be considered risk-free. SAO also expressed concern that, in providing in-person assistance to people using the kits, SSDP members could be considered to be in possession of illegal substances. After hearing SAO’s concerns, we readily acknowledged the flaws in the program and provided a lengthy proposal which we believe remedied these issues and redesigned the program. We proposed that SSDP members would not actually handle drugs; they instead would observe as students checked their own substances with proper kits we would provide. And we proposed re-wording our advertisements to make clear that we could not guarantee the complete accuracy of our kits.

But some of SAO’s criticism was misguided. SAO also worried that students who are on the fence about doing drugs might be encouraged to do so when our drug checking kits found their substance to be free of adulterants. But this worry shows that SAO misunderstands the point of harm reduction — their attitude mirrors national arguments used to defend criminalization and oppose the establishment of harm-reduction programs for fear that they will encourage illicit behavior. Brown students have been taking drugs long before the existence of SSDP, and they will continue to do so long after it is gone. Instead of encouraging students to use drugs, SSDP’s program actually served as a reminder to students of the very real risks associated with drug use. In fact, it is likely that the program actually decreased drug use on campus, such as in cases when students learned that their drugs were contaminated and therefore decided to abstain.

Despite our attempts to work together with SAO to come up with a solution, SAO ignored our proposal for months after the initial halt to the program. Finally, a meeting was held — without any SSDP representation — between SAO, the Office of General Council, Environmental Health and Safety and the Department of Public Safety. Afterwards, SSDP leadership was informed that the program had been definitively and permanently banned for violating the Student Code of Conduct by aiding in the use of illegal drugs.

It is a deeply problematic decision for the University to shut down this harm reduction program. For one thing, it is inconsistent with the University’s recognition of the value of harm reduction in other contexts. For example, the alcohol orientation for incoming first-year students rightly acknowledges the fact that many Brown students will drink before they are 21, and it actually provides advice for these students on how to do so responsibly. On the academic front, the Warren Alpert Medical School is home to national leaders in harm reduction research, such as Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine Geoffrey Capraro, who invented the NaloxBox, a technology designed to increase access to the overdose reversal drug Naloxone. Clearly researchers at Brown understand the importance of harm reduction, so why doesn’t the administration? Banning a program that addresses the existence of drug use is an exercise in denial, and one that could come with serious harm to students.

Laurel McIntyre ’22 and Noah Mlyn ’20 can be reached at laurel_mcintyre@brown.edu and noah_mlyn@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Correction: A previous version of this op-ed stated that the School of Public Health is home to national leaders in harm reduction research, such as Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine Geoffrey Capraro. In fact, Capraro works at the Warren Alpert Medical School. The Herald regrets the error. 

One Comment

  1. TheRationale says:

    How about students taken responsibility for their own actions and test their own drugs? Don’t make people pay tuition money for this nonsense.

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