Universities should take harm reduction approach to drug use, experts say

As CEGEP and university students head back to school, some experts argue it makes more sense to ensure illicit drugs are taken safely rather than try to prevent them from being taken altogether.

'The approach of "just say no" just doesn't work,' says McGill's student health director

Gonzo Nieto, a board member of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, says cheap test kits could help make drug use safer. (CBC)

As CEGEP and university students head to back to school, some experts argue it makes more sense to ensure illicit drugs are taken safely rather than try to prevent them from being taken altogether.

Gonzo Nieto, a drug educator and a board member of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said commonly used drugs such as MDMA or cocaine are sometimes mixed with harmful chemicals, leading to potentially dangerous results.

In August, Quebec City health officials said 11 people overdosed in recent months, three fatally, after taking counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with the powerful narcotic fentanyl.

Nieto said the drugs people take aren't usually tested for purity, so no one knows exactly what they're taking. But Nieto said a cheap drug kit can help.

"Having that kind of service available helps people make better decisions because they can choose to say, you know, this is not what I was looking to put in my body, and now that I have that information, I can make that decision," he said.

Nieto said such tests can be bought online and mixed with a small amount of a pill or powder to indicate whether certain chemicals have been mixed in.

Health officials in Quebec City say drug users may have unwittingly ingested the powerful narcotic fentanyl while taking counterfeit oxycodone pills. (CBC)
"And many people will choose not to take it or may actually throw it out," he said.

The problem is the tests aren't full-proof, according to the director of student health at McGill University.

Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier said the tests can indicate the presence of a certain drug, but not the concentration.

For its part, Tellier said McGill has improved its harm reduction education programs in recent years among students in leadership positions, such as floor fellows.

He stressed harm reduction doesn't mean the university promotes drug use.

"The approach of 'just say no' just doesn't work," he said.

"So we say, 'fine, if you're doing this, make sure you take care of yourself.'"

In Europe, formal drug testing labs are more common, but Canadian harm reduction advocacy organizations such as GRIP Montreal say the country is likely a long way off from something similar.

Jessica Turmel, a spokeswoman for the local group, said the debate is similar to the one around safe injection sites, which have run up against road blocks in some Canadian cities.

Turmel said a wider-spread drug education program starting early in the school year would help young people make safer choices, but there's currently a lack of funding — and political will.


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