Harm Reduction at Evergreen?
Some Say the College is not Doing Enough
By Felix Chrome
Opioid use is rising nation wide. Evergreen is not exempt from this trend, which is putting new focus on the college’s drug policies. “There is opiate use in the residence halls, there has been since I’ve been here,” said Sharon Goodman, director of Residential and Dining Services (RAD), “and it is going way up in Washington state.”
Opioid it the umbrella term that includes both opiates, drugs made from opium, and synthetically-made drugs that are chemically similar to opiates. However, the two terms are commonly used interchangeably.
Goodman is also the co-chair of the President’s Drug and Alcohol Prevention Work Group, which was created in 2008, but reconvened last year after becoming inactive.
This group is charged with examining Evergreen’s drug policies and recommending potential changes. In an email sent to faculty and staff about the committee’s renewed work, the administration said this new focus on drug policy is partially a result of a “reported increase in the use of drugs, like heroin, in our immediate community.”
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), between 1999 and 2010, overdose deaths more than quadrupled nationally, rising from 4,030 to 16,651. The same study states some of this increase is associated with opioid prescription painkillers, which are highly addictive.
The Journal of the American Medical Association found links between use of prescription opioids and later use of cheaper heroin. Nearly 80 percent of people who reported starting to use heroin in 2013 said they previously used opioid painkillers.
Like most colleges, Evergreen tries to prevent students from using drugs, hoping for a alcohol- and substance-free campus. When asked about the school’s primary focus on abstinence, Goodman said, “Well obviously that doesn’t work. We definitely have a harm reduction model.”
In drug policy, harm reduction philosophy argues drug use is inevitable, and instead of shaming users and telling them to stop, focuses on making sure drug users have the resources and support to be as safe as possible.
Evergreen does not arrest people in the vast majority of drug law violations. According to the state-mandated crime reporting for 2013, only three of the 146 violations resulted in an arrest. If the administration is made aware of drug use on campus, “we would call that student in to have a conversation, and ask about health and wellness and try to figure out if there is anything we can do,” said Goodman. And “that person would go through the conduct system, not the criminal system.”
But critics argue that Evergreen’s policy is not based on harm reduction. “If Evergreen thinks they are using a harm reduction model, they need to look up what that actually means,” said Dann Hixenbaugh, an Evergreen student and volunteer with the Emma Goldman Youth and Homeless Outreach Program (EGYHOP). (The outreach program works to supply homeless and street dependent people with supplies they need to survive and operates a needle exchange.)
Beyond trying to avoid the increased harm of arrest in cases where students are not selling or manufacturing drugs, many students say the college does not do enough to support the safety of students who use drugs.
Max Goldsmith, a long-time volunteer for EGYHOP and harm reduction advocate, agrees: “Abstinence-only and prohibition don’t work.” But Goldsmith follows the philosophy of harm reduction beyond the college’s interpretations.
Goldsmith and other harm reduction advocates say one thing the administration could do is supply Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdose, to campus cops and residential advisors (RAs). Currently no one on campus is trained to use or carry Narcan. In the event of an overdose on campus, the college’s policy is to call 911 and wait for an ambulance to arrive.
Narcan, the trade name for naloxone, is a drug that immediately reverses the effects of opioids, and the related symptoms of overdoses. Narcan is administered intravenously, or through a nasal spray version of the drug.
Since police on campus and people working in the residence halls can respond to emergencies faster than city police and medical personnel, some students believe the school has a responsibility to supply campus police and RAs with Narcan.
“Next time there is an opiate death on campus and the police have responded, and the RAs have responded, and the RDs have responded, before the ambulance gets here, it is on their hands in a lot of ways,” said Goldsmith.
While specific statistics about various types of drug use on campus are not available to the public, Goodman said that at least three students have died of opiate overdoses in the eight years she has worked here.
Goodman said Evergreen is hesitant to spend resources on Narcan, when there are relatively low rates of opioid use, compared to other drugs. However, she said the President’s Drug and Alcohol Prevention Work Group is talking about it and “it’s on our list of short term goals to look at and do more research.”
Many students also say Evergreen could do more to deal with needle disposal on campus. There are currently no public sharps containers on campus, and many student workers for RAD often encounter discarded syringes, which puts them at risk for bloodborne pathogens.
Goldsmith said that when he was a maintenance worker for RAD he saw discarded needles. “As someone who has worked at the needle exchange in this town for three and a half years now, and as a student and worker at The Evergreen State College, I have seen my peers from here utilizing that service.”
Goodman said the administration is discussing sharps containers on campus but “it is a controversial issue,” and thus far they have decided to “not spend college or state resources to buy them.”
Beyond budgetary and resource concerns, Goodman says that in both the cases of sharps containers and Narcan the administration is worried about the “message it is sending.” Goodman later said, “we don’t necessarily want to enable IV drug users, but we want to keep them safe and the rest of the community safe.”
The President’s Drug and Alcohol Prevention Work Group are currently working on a report with statistics about drug and alcohol use on campus and recommended policy changes. They are aiming to release the report by the end of the quarter.