It was 16 years ago this August when I first set foot as a freshman on a college campus. Perhaps the experience is particularly vivid for me because now, as a college professor, I teach in a building just a few dozen yards from where I, as a student, drank Hurricane 40s, snorted amphetamines, and tried LSD and MDMA for the first time. Watching the buzz on campus always brings me back to my first year.
My first few days as a college student were a blur, but somewhere between my drug- and alcohol-induced blackouts, one specific memory stands out in my mind: when one of my floormates showed us the medium-size cardboard box filled with condoms—100, at least—with which his family had sent him to school.
Instead of telling him to not have sex, his family used a harm-reduction strategy that after many decades of opposition is commonly used today. After years of pushback (and despite some pushback today, still), we now know that increasing students’ access to condoms does not encourage those who would otherwise abstain from sex to have it; instead, it minimizes harms associated with unprotected sex by dramatically decreasing the risk of unexpected pregnancies and reducing the spread of sexually transmitted disease.
Today, as our young people face the deadliest drug overdose crisis in American history—an estimated 72,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2017—it’s time for parents of first-year students to follow the lead of families that give their children condoms. This year, if you’re sending your kids off to college, pack fentanyl testing kits and naloxone. I promise you’re not enabling or encouraging them to use drugs; you’re just telling them to use drugs more safely if they do.
For many college students, their drug use is just experimentation. For some it won’t be—like me, though, thankfully, in my late 20s, I found recovery for my addiction. But if I were a student now, at a time in which our illicit drug market is saturated with fentanyl, I doubt I’d have lived to be the wife, mother, and educator I am today. And it’s worth mentioning that opiates weren’t my “thing.” Harm-reduction tools, like fentanyl testing kits, can tell your child if there’s fentanyl in the drugs they’re ingesting, and naloxone can reverse an overdose if ingesting an opiate is something they do, consciously or unconsciously.
During the last academic year in Philadelphia, we lost several students to drug overdoses, as did many other towns and cities across the United States. At the end of the fall semester at Temple University, where I teach, two students died in one week: One overdosed in the library, and another was found dead a block off-campus in his home. A few months later, a Penn Law student died of an overdose in his campus apartment, too.
Though collegiate recovery is indeed having a moment, a vast majority of American colleges are not recovery- or overdose-prevention friendly. Only a small number of schools have collegiate recovery programs (many of which promote abstinence) with dedicated staff and space, and beyond first responders such as campus police, few (if any) require staff like resident assistants, building security guards, and parking attendants to carry naloxone.
Many schools (mine included), are certainly improving how they accommodate students in addiction and recovery, but change, especially at some of America’s slowest-moving institutions takes time. (It can take up to a year to amend a course title, folks!) So while we wait for our colleges to catch up to student needs and illicit drug trends—1 in 5 college students reports using illicit substances other than marijuana, and recently fentanyl has reportedly contaminated other drugs such as cocaine—you, as parents, need to take matters into your own hands. The pre-college “just say no” talk will just not do (as it never has).
While laws regarding naloxone access vary by state, getting the medication is now easier than ever. With insurance, the copay depends on your prescription plan. Without insurance, it costs about $150. You don’t even need an in-person training; you and your child can train online at Get Naloxone Now. As for fentanyl testing strips, you may be able to get them from free from your local public health department, and can otherwise purchase them from organizations like Bunk Police for between $1.50–$2 each online.
Not only will providing your children with harm-reduction supplies reduce the risks associated with using drugs should that be something they do, but it will also provide you with the opportunity to give them other overdose prevention tips—such as only using one substance at a time, using less after decreased use or abstinence, and never using drugs alone. Plus, it gives you the chance to tell them where they can get treatment should they develop a substance-use disorder as a student, like I did.
If you’re a product of the war on drugs like me, raised on “this is your brain on drugs” messaging, these suggestions may sound radical. But as a parent, I’d imagine you’d like for your child to be breathing at Thanksgiving when they come home. This could help.