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As campus life returns in B.C. will toxic drug deaths increase?

Harm reduction services for students across the province, such as access to naloxone kits, need to be low-barrier and delivered by peers, advocates say.
Image Credit: Christopher Cheung
August 17, 2021 - 7:00 PM

Students returning to the post-secondary party scene this fall will be at a greater risk of overdose unless universities and government do more to bring harm reduction services to campus, advocates are warning.

While classes have moved online over the last 18 months, the illicit drug supply has become increasingly unpredictable, toxic and more deadly.

And students who use substances occasionally or recreationally may not be familiar with the changed drug supply or be in the habit of testing their drugs. Some may have less tolerance after more than a year with fewer social gatherings and less use overall.

“The drug supply right now is really adulterated, and it only got worse during the pandemic,” said Samara Mayer, chair of the Vancouver chapter of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “And this combination of lower or no tolerance, new social networks, excitement about parties, and the increasingly toxic drug supply can really result in some significant risk for students.”

Karen Ward, a drug policy advisor for the City of Vancouver and Downtown Eastside advocate, says a return to partying without accessible safe supply and drug-checking is a perfect storm to cause more toxic drug deaths among young people and students.

“What I’ve been seeing in the drug-checking is bad,” said Ward in an interview. “I don’t want these kids to die.”

Drug testing in Vancouver has seen the increasing presence of powerful opioids fentanyl and carfentanil as well as benzodiazepines in substances sold as heroin, and the animal tranquilizer xylazine sold as MDMA, a common party drug also known as Molly.

Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.’s minister for mental health and addictions, acknowledged the increased risk of  overdose and deaths as pandemic reopening allowed for more parties and social gatherings.

“The drugs you might use today are not the same as they were one or two years ago,” said Malcolmson in a June 29 statement. “People who use drugs recreationally and regularly are all at high risk. If you plan to use, whether at home, at a party or event, know how to stay safer. This can mean the difference between life and death.”

But Ward said recent provincial efforts to curb toxic drug deaths, like new plans for safe supply announced last month, don’t help people who use substances casually or recreationally.

With a focus on treatment and safe options only for people with diagnosed substance use disorder, “you really miss  people who don’t use often,” said Ward. The current policy also doesn’t  include people under 19, a large portion of post-secondary students.

In an emailed statement, a Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions spokesperson said “the ministry has concerns for post-secondary students and anyone who uses drugs recreationally and regularly as they are all at high risk.”

A digital campaign to educate students and young people on harm reduction resources has been underway all summer, he said, and will ramp up in the fall with signage and information at  restaurants and bars near post-secondary campuses as well as at universities themselves.

The ministry did not answer directly when asked what specifically it was doing to support casual users excluded  from safe supply policies, but encouraged students to check their drugs, carry naloxone and use the LifeGuard app when using substances.

Mayer said the stereotype that educated, often affluent students aren’t at risk of overdosing because they may not be habitual users is false. Fifteen per cent of toxic drug deaths in B.C. in 2020 were people 19 to 29.

Harm reduction services for students in particular need to be low-barrier and delivered by peers, Mayer said, or they won’t use them. That means naloxone kits and drug-testing available at parties, and peer-led response teams trained to spot and reverse overdoses.

“Having access to a safer supply, for everyone, including students who use drugs recreationally, could be another important tool in helping to reduce harm, particularly in the context of an adulterated drug supply and among people with lower or no tolerance levels,” said Mayer, who is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia studying opioid agonist treatments.

At UBC, which is mandating an online COVID-19 safety training module for all students, staff and faculty in advance of its return to campus, there are a number of training resources available but no compulsory harm reduction education. 

Naloxone kits to reverse opioid overdoses  are available for “high-risk” individuals who are using and those likely to be with them through Student Health Services. All residence advisors and campus security officers are trained to administer naloxone, which  is kept in all residences. 

“Kits are broadly available to anyone who  may use, even just once, or to their friends and family members,” said UBC spokesperson Kurt Heinrich in an email. “But if someone doesn’t know  anyone who is using, or won’t use themselves, then the kits need to go  to the people who need them the most.”

The students’ union, which hosts its own naloxone training and a number of peer support programs, says both the university and province need to do more to centre students in their  response to toxic drug deaths.

In the absence of an overdose prevention site on or near campus, the Alma Mater Society has been working on making more drug testing kits available near campus and partnering with student organizations, like fraternities, to provide training on  spotting and responding to overdoses.

“We can’t just tackle from a UBC perspective, it’s something that we need to approach from a provincial level,” said Saad Shoaib, AMS vice-president of external affairs.

“The university, and we as students, can’t control the drug supply. There definitely should be a safe supply on campuses across B.C. so we can focus on prevention and harm reduction,” he added.

Many post-secondaries outside of the Lower Mainland and Victoria also don’t have off-campus harm reduction services nearby to refer students to, Mayer said. 

That makes campuses essential hubs for overdose prevention as students arrive next month. Some, like the UBC Okanagan in Kelowna, have already begun campus-based harm reduction teams, which Mayer would like to see spread across the province.

“I think having university-embedded and centred conversations about substance use is important, because it helps to reduce some of the stigma that comes with drug use,” said Mayer. “It sends the message that universities are prioritizing these accessible harm reduction services.”

— This story was originally published by The Tyee.

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