Changes to McGill Residences’ Harm-Reduction Drug Policy

Courtesy of Creative Commons

In mid-January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic and amidst festivals and parties like Carnival, E-Week, Science Games, and Igloofest, Liz*, a floor fellow, received a worrying report from one of her students: a pill they were going to take had tested positive for fentanyl.

The two years prior had been confusing for students and administrators with regards to drug policy. Canada had legalized marijuana for recreational use in October 2018, then Quebec promptly de-legalized it for those under 21 on January 1, 2020.

During this period, Student Housing and Hospitality Services (SHHS) had maintained its policy of harm reduction in residence. Floor fellows were encouraged to keep discussions around drug use with students confidential and even given training on “tripsitting,” which refers to safe practices for observing those using mind-altering substances. This policy was designed to mitigate dangers of overdose and ensure that residents would not be driven to experiment with substances covertly.

But at the start of the 2020 winter semester, that harm reduction approach seemed to change. On January 16, McGill updated its Code of Community Living and asked every student living in residence to report substance use.

“This change in policy came out of the blue,” according to Liz.

In an attempt to standardize emergency responses, floor fellows were also instructed to call 911 and file a formal incident report for any potentially urgent situation involving controlled substances.

Following the discovery of fentanyl, Liz approached her residence life manager for help, to use official channels to warn students. She received little instruction besides a request not to put it in a formal report.

“We… asked for fentanyl strips in residence. That’s how the student found out that there was fentanyl in their drugs, but they had been asking us for awhile how to get those strips and we didn’t have any, we didn’t know any resources that had any, and we were told that would never happen by our supervisors because of the liability. There were concerns about liability, which was also why I was asked not to put it in my report.”

Luckily, the student did discover the fentanyl and Liz had opted to take the optional Narcan training for floor fellows. Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, is a drug that blocks the effects of opioids to help prevent overdose. McGill has since made this training mandatory and provided floor fellows with the nasal spray, but many floor fellows still have concerns about the new policy driving students underground and into their rooms.

The new policy creates an environment of ‘why would you ever talk to me?’

Zoe*, another floor fellow, said the new policy “creates an environment of ‘why would you ever talk to me?’”

Concerns over fentanyl in popular party drugs have heightened since the fentanyl was found in January. The substance is commonly used as a heroin substitute and is 50-100 times as potent. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that from 2016 to 2017, 82 percent of apparent opioid overdoses were linked to non-opioid substances.

Other floor fellows describe feeling ill-equipped to deal with drug related issues which might arise. Zach*, a floor fellow for several years, has frequently felt unable to deal with substance-related problems.

“A few times, I dealt with students who were drugged by others at events,” Zach said. “Some were Frosh events, and I didn’t feel too comfortable or equipped to deal with those situations.”

When questioned by Former Vice President University Affairs, Madeline Wilson, on the change in policy, Christopher Manfredi, McGill’s Provost and Vice-Principal Academic stated McGill’s commitment to harm reduction.

“The philosophy is one of harm reduction through an efficient and research based intervention model,” Manfredi said. “Possession of drug paraphernalia that could be associated with trafficking, or consumption of an illegal drug are prohibited as well.”

In the face of COVID-19, residence life manager understaffing, and problems with employee payroll, it remains to be seen how the McGill administration will tackle this issue.


*Names have been changed for fear of employer retaliation.


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