Harm reduction in residences can save lives

For many students, experimenting with recreational drugs is part of the university experience, and a subculture of illicit drug use exists at McGill. To mitigate harmful consequences such as addiction and overdose, floor fellows in first-year residences have historically been trained to practice a harm reduction approach to drug use, based on the principles of non-judgement, compassion, and openness. However, in January, McGill enacted changes that shifted its policies towards a zero-tolerance, abstinence-only approach. This decision can have dangerous ramifications for students since a lack of honest communication about drug use can prevent students from seeking help for drug-related issues. McGill can better protect students in residences by reinstating a harm reduction policy that focusses on safety rather than punishment.

Abstinence-based policies penalize drug users rather than prioritize their safety. On the other hand, harm reduction methods have proven to be more effective than zero-tolerance policies because they destigmatize drug use and encourage users to seek treatment if they want or need it. Accordingly, places that have implemented harm reduction methods have seen decreases in addiction, overdose, and drug-related diseases. However, under the new policy, McGill students who need such support may fear they will be punished for coming forward. This could make them less likely to seek guidance from health and support services, including the Student Wellness Hub. It is unrealistic for McGill to believe these policies will prevent students from using drugs, and it would therefore be more effective for the administration to prioritize making drug use as safe as possible. 

One way to implement harm reduction is to foster open communication, but McGill’s new policy compels students to report any suspicion of drug use by their peers. This creates a hostile atmosphere that pits students against one another and discourages them from being honest with their friends about using drugs. If someone is struggling with addiction, they may be less likely to tell their friends, who could risk punishing the user by reporting them or being punished themselves for keeping quiet. Harm reduction encourages openness and honesty, while abstinence-only policies isolate drug users.

New policies also put significant pressure on floor fellows, who are now obligated to file reports to administration or law enforcement if they learn of a student’s drug use. This alters the role of a floor fellow from a supportive to an authoritative figure, discouraging students from seeking help if they or their friends are facing addiction or an overdose. Many popular party drugs in the city have been laced with opioids such as fentanyl, which makes them especially dangerous. If McGill returned to a harm reduction approach, floor fellows could distribute testing kits to students who intend to use drugs so that they can be conscious of what exactly they are taking. Instead of encouraging floor fellows to report their students, McGill should want students to see them as trusted resources. This way, students using drugs can do so in the safest way possible.

By turning to an abstinence-only policy, McGill is ignoring both the realities of student drug use and the research proving the benefits of harm reduction-based policies. It is impossible to keep drugs out of residences, but it is possible to treat drug use as a health issue and encourage students to receive support if they face problems related to addiction. Condemnation and punishment do nothing to keep students safe. McGill students should call upon Student Housing and Hospitality Services to reinstate a harm reduction policy that includes drug testing kits in residences and further training for floor fellows. In doing so, they could reduce the risk of addiction and overdose and potentially save lives.

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