McGill Frosh week just ended. It’s September’s biggest party, and, for many students, a comprehensive introduction to the school’s drinking and drug culture. Healthy McGill, Floor Fellows, and other student leaders encourage first-years to have fun, but be safe—they acknowledge that some young people do drugs, and emphasize harm reduction over lecturing or guilt-tripping, in line with McGill’s programs on student drug use.
As they should. However, this approach needs an update, one that accounts for an increasingly critical source of harm. Fentanyl, a powerful and deadly synthetic opioid, is on the rise in Montreal’s drug scene. Whether a student is a regular drug user, or a just-this-once type, fentanyl is a real and prevalent danger. Even if they don’t use drugs at all, it’s likely they know someone who does.
These are the facts: Fatal opioid overdose linked to fentanyl is a public health crisis in Canada. Both those who struggle with addiction and casual drug-users are unknowingly overdosing on drugs laced with fentanyl, and, far too frequently, they are dying. While Alberta and British Columbia have been hit hardest by recent spikes in fatal overdoses, this is not a provincial epidemic—it is a national one, and it has reached Quebec. Since August 1, there have been 24 confirmed drug overdose cases in Montreal, and 12 deaths linked to overdose. Moreover, a Montreal Public Health surveillance initiative of drug users in the city revealed that many users unknowingly take drugs cut with fentanyl. The agency has declared the situation a public health emergency.
Yet, there has been virtually no conversation on campus about how to best educate and protect students using drugs in this new landscape. This needs to change. In this ongoing epidemic, students and young people are especially at risk, given the way university culture tends to normalize excessive drinking and drug use. The McGill administration, the Students Society of McGill University (SSMU), and students themselves must take proactive steps now—both educational and harm reduction-focused—to address the real threat that fentanyl and similar synthetic opioids present to students and their friends.
The rapid spread of fentanyl across Canada is in part due to the opioid’s infinitesimal size. Fentanyl is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, so it only takes an amount equivalent to a single grain of salt to feel the drug’s effects. An amount roughly the size of two grains of salt can be enough to kill a person.
Those grains are mixed with fillers or other street drugs—including popular party drugs like cocaine and MDMA—and sold for spectacular profit, thanks to how little fentanyl is needed to produce a high. Often, that high comes at devastating cost. Between January and July of this year alone, fentanyl was found in 706 fatal overdose victims in British Columbia.
Someone overdosing minutes after doing a single line of cocaine used to be the stuff of exaggerated, war-on-drugs propaganda. Now, it’s not such an unlikely reality. That’s not to say McGill should start a campus-wide crackdown on drug use. Destigmatizing addiction, addressing the mental health challenges that so often correlate with substance abuse, and offering students support rather than judgment should remain utmost priorities, now more than ever. But, it is also imperative that the McGill community update its risk profile of drug use, and adapt harm reduction practices—both proactive and responsive––accordingly.
Other Canadian universities have already taken such steps. The University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, and the University of Manitoba have all started distributing naloxone kits. Naloxone is an antidote drug that blocks the effects of an overdose long enough for a victim to reach a hospital. UBC has also trained campus medical aid teams on administration of the drug. It’s essential that the McGill administration moves to make naloxone freely accessible on campus.
In the meantime, preventative action must be taken through education and raising awareness. The University of Alberta, for example, has distributed informational posters on campus about the dangers of opioids. This is not only the administration’s responsibility. SSMU ought to follow suit, and update its programming on safe partying—particularly its informational resources directed at first-year students—to provide students with the information they need to keep themselves safe, such as where and how to get their own drug testing and naloxone kits.
All the safety precautions in the world won’t make much of a difference if the McGill community doesn’t take this new risk seriously, and start the conversation on campus on how its members can best respond and support each other—now, not later. On this issue, it’s unacceptable for McGill or SSMU to drag their feet. Hindsight isn’t good enough when students are at risk of dying.