Using and abusing

Uncovering the cocaine culture at McGill

By Catherine Morrison, Student Living Editor -- March 27, 2018

In no place is the “work hard, play hard” attitude more present than at McGill. As one of Canada’s most prestigious universities, known for its competitive acceptance rate and diligent student body, one might not expect the school to have a considerable number of drug users. However, in a city where hard drug use is prevalent, McGill’s cocaine culture, although well-hidden, is rampant.

“I guess I always knew there was a culture [of cocaine use] at McGill,” Tyler*, a U2 Arts student, said. “I mean you hear the upper residence [McConnell, Molson, Gardner] stereotypes, and it comes with the territory of being a competitive intellectual environment. What struck me was how casual it all was, how comfortable and normal the experience is.”

In an online survey on cocaine use by the university’s students conducted by The McGill Tribune, 38 per cent of the 329 respondents said that they had used cocaine during their time at McGill.

For many, the culture of cocaine use at McGill became apparent to them early on in their time at the university. For Colin Graham, U1 Arts, the introduction to groups of cocaine users came as a shock during his first few months in McGill’s residences.

“There was a girl I met last year in residence [...] who told me that she [...] does cocaine regularly,” Graham said. “This initially shocked me, [...] I hadn’t heard of anyone doing cocaine regularly before. However, after being here for a year, the drug has [become] very normalized to me as I now know of a number of people who use it.”

While some students encounter the drug through connections in residence, others become aware of its widespread use in more public settings, like during their first nights out with friends in Montreal.

“I guess I knew there would be some kind of drug presence at McGill, like in any university setting,” Hannah*, a U3 Arts student, said. “However, I was a bit caught off guard when I was first exposed to it at a frat party during the first days of Frosh. I was in this guy’s room with one of my friends and he offered us some. I felt a bit pressured to try it seeing as I just assumed it was something everyone did here.”

As students become accustomed to using cocaine and spend more time with a group of friends who also consume cocaine themselves, uncontrolled use often becomes much more routine.

“Ever since I moved into my apartment where both of my roommates do cocaine, [I do it] significantly more often,” Hannah said. “I literally do it just about every weekend now. The amount that my friends do makes me feel like I’m not doing that much, when I really am. Last night, we got about $70 worth of it and I basically did half of it all [by] myself.”

As a stimulant drug, uppers like cocaine activate the pleasure and reward centre of the brain, boosting the user’s energy and alertness. Student respondents to the Tribune’s survey reported similar effects resulting from their cocaine use, which causes over 12 per cent of respondents to prefer consuming cocaine instead of alcohol during a night out and 15 per cent to prefer using cocaine instead of smoking marijuana.

“I like to use cocaine because I never get hungover the next day and it gives me this confidence boost that I can’t find elsewhere,” Jacob*, a U1 Science student, said. “It makes me feel like I can do anything.”

The effects of cocaine on the human body result in the drug being a popular choice among party-goers who seek the sensation of increased energy and confidence during a night out. Graham, for instance, said he mostly notices people using the drug when going out clubbing.

“When you go to Sky night club, you’ll always notice at least one person on cocaine,” Graham said. “The whole concept of a nightclub is to [...] dance with people, and hook up with people. Drugs just go hand in hand with hooking up because [...] a big part of [cocaine’s effects] is that apparently it makes you feel really social and confident.”

According to Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, possession of cocaine can result in seven years’ imprisonment, while trafficking and production of cocaine can lead to a life sentence. In spite of the severity of the charges they may face if caught with cocaine, many students still find that drug use has become so normalized that they often forget about the repercussions.

“In Canada, it feels like marijuana is already legal,” Tyler said. “My friends and I smoke it anywhere, any time without even thinking twice about it. I guess that’s why I feel [the same] about using other drugs like cocaine in clubs and other [public] places [....] I’m so used to not hiding my drug use that sometimes I forget that I could get in a lot of trouble if I get caught.”

Students’ lessened perception of the illegality of cocaine is likely due to the fact that criminal charges are not always brought against users. Some students like Graham have witnessed their friends getting caught with the drug, but not suffering any grave direct consequence.

“When I’ve been in night clubs, specifically in Sky, I’ve seen people doing drugs in the bathroom on many different occasions,” Graham said. “One day when I was there, two of my friends got caught in the bathroom stall doing key bumps [snorting a small amount of a powdered drug off of a key] together and they got kicked out of the club. There were no further repercussions, they were just kicked out of the club for the night.”

In addition to the potential judicial reverberations of being caught with cocaine, use of the drug also has many dangerous health consequences. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction lists numerous dangerous short-term effects of cocaine use including increased heart rate and blood pressure, agitation, and paranoia, and an even longer list of long term effects such as kidney failure, cardiovascular problems, and memory disruptions.

“I honestly don’t really know what cocaine does,” Hannah said. “The only effect [of cocaine] I know about is that it can burn a hole in your septum. I learned that in a science class, and it’s literally the only effect I know.”

For some students, the presence of hard drugs in a university setting which already has such a heavy drinking culture is concerning. Eliza Snodgrass, U1 Arts, worries that cocaine use during competitive drinking weeks such as Carnival and Hype Week where alcohol also abounds poses an additional danger to the organization of the events.

“It’s crazy how normalized drug use is at McGill,” Snodgrass said. “We already have a big drinking culture to begin with, and things like Carnival and Hype Week that make drug use seem so fun and normal makes it hard to remember that you can die from it [....] If it’s your first time and someone gives you something and you don’t know how to tell what’s in it or how much to take, you can literally die from coke on your first time [....] You’re not going to die from one beer, but with one bump of cocaine you could if there’s other stuff mixed in.”

According to the Tribune’s survey, cocaine is respondents’ third substance of choice on a night out after alcohol and marijuana. In light of cocaine’s widespread use in the student community and young people’s apparent ignorance of the consequences of imprudent drug use, one could argue that McGill is not doing enough to inform students about the presence and potential dangers of cocaine use. Especially given the recent outbreak of the fentanyl crisis in Montreal, which has caused 24 confirmed drug overdoses in Montreal, and 12 deaths linked to overdose since Aug. 1, the importance for students to be aware of the risks of cocaine and other hard drug use is more important than ever. Although fentanyl poses a deadly threat, according to the Tribune’s survey, only 51 per cent of student respondents worry about its potential presence in cocaine before consuming the drug.

“There are a lot of instances when people have died from overdosing, especially in college,” Jacob said. “I think it's important for McGill to recognize that and have ways to tell people what to do if they see someone struggling. In my first year, my floor fellow basically told us that they knew we were going to try drugs and [...] that in case we did overdose, we should write what drug we took on a piece of paper and stick it in our back pocket, so that someone who finds us would be able to recognize what we’ve done and inform a trained professional.”

But those trained professionals appear to be few and far between, and access to them is predicated upon first navigating the labyrinth of Counselling Services, currently under integrative restructuring. All of McGill’s counselling services’ information on substance use consists of external links to apps and videos, instead of offering on-site educational resources. The University of British Columbia, on the other hand, offers a detailed overview for students wishing to know more about substance use and abuse. Their featured resources and tools include a link to a university workshop on overdose first aid and substance use. McGill’s Substance Misuse Program on the other hand cannot be accessed through the university’s counselling services’ list of resources.

Moreover, McGill’s administration has demonstrated a conservative approach to dealing with preventative education concerning hard drug use among students. Healthy McGill, a student services initiative at McGill, is one of the only groups on campus to take on a uniquely pedagogical approach to informing students about substance use.

“At Healthy McGill, we use a harm-reduction approach when doing drug and alcohol education, with the goal of providing students with resources and information that can help them reduce risk and make the choices that are right for them,” Daneese Rao, representative of Healthy McGill’s Party Safe committee wrote in an email to the Tribune. “One of the models we use is ‘Just Say KNOW’—know what [drug] you're using, know the risks and effects, know why you're using, and know that you're in control.”

While this resource’s efforts are commendable, McGill needs more educational resources like it. In thinking about how the McGill community can make cocaine use safer, there is a necessity for a heightened awareness about the drug. It is important for students to first recognize the presence of cocaine culture at McGill, in order to foster a safe and open discussion about it.

“Sometimes I feel the need to lie to my friends about my cocaine use,” Hannah said. “[... I] really think this needs to change if there’s going to be any progress done in making use of the drug safer. If there’s already an open discussion about alcohol and marijuana use, why can’t we open a discussion about cocaine use as well?”

*Name changed at the request of the student.

About the survey:

The student survey referenced in this article does not meet scientific standards.

The author of this article distributed the survey to the McGill student body using an anonymous Google form. The survey included a combination of multiple-choice, Likert scale, and open-ended questions about students experiences with cocaine use during their time at McGill University.

During the data-collection period, the author posted the survey link to various McGill community groups on Facebook and Reddit over the course of eight days from March 15 to March 22. In total, 329 students responded to the survey.