UW Students Hope To Popularize Harm Reduction On Their Campus

Three years ago, a handful of local UW students opened a chapter under the international organization Students For Sensible Drug Policy on their campus, responding to the increase in fentanyl-related deaths in the community. The post UW Students Hope To Popularize Harm Reduction On Their Campus appeared first on The Seattle Medium.

UW Students Hope To Popularize Harm Reduction On Their Campus
Hall Health Center is located on the eastern end of the University of Washington campus and provides comprehensive care to the student body. Fentanyl test kits provided by the UW SSDP are available here for students, staff and faculty Monday through Friday. Photo/Em Helena.

By Em Helena, The Seattle Medium

Three years ago, a handful of local UW students opened a chapter under the international organization Students For Sensible Drug Policy on their campus, responding to the increase in fentanyl-related deaths in the community.

It is the first SSDP chapter opened within King County and their main goal is to encourage and provide harm reduction resources for safe drug practices among their peers.

“Whether if you use drugs or not or you have a family member who is incarcerated, or whatever, you can come and discuss your experiences and learn about harm reduction, learn how to stay safe, have a fun time, and make friends,”  says Griffin Bird, a member of the founding team and current co-president.

“SSDP is an international organization run by students dedicated to ending the war on drugs and we’re a local UW chapter of that. We want to create a safe space on campus for people from all walks of life,” 

Harm reduction is not a new concept. Its roots trace to the Black Panther Party’s Survival Programs in the 1960s and 70s. The first and most familiar was the free breakfast for children program, which opened in 1969 at Oakland’s St. Augustine’s Church, and  by the end of that year had chapters in 23 cities and successfully fed more than 20,000 children.

Their main motivation was to provide social programs based on the immediate needs of their community. In this case, they knew that hunger was a barrier to learning for black children in poverty, and they didn’t want them starting their school day on empty stomachs.

This concept of tailored harm reduction is once again being revitalized by the Seattle community through organizations such as UW SSDP, which seeks to reduce negative consequences associated with drug use, and to provide people who use drugs (PWUD) with individualized care. “People who use drugs” is the preferred term in the harm reduction community. They believe that people-first language emphasizes the individual and shows that they are more than their drug use.

Harm reduction can be as simple as providing easy access to fentanyl test strips and naloxone (Narcan) for people who use drugs, or for people who want to keep them on hand for the future. Fentanyl is a tasteless, odorless, synthetic opioid with extreme potency. According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, 2mg is considered a potentially lethal dose.

A large number of overdoses are attributed to individuals using another substance such as MDMA (Molly or Ecstasy), cocaine, heroin, for example, cut with fentanyl without the user’s knowledge Fentanyl is cheap, and it’s strong, and distributors cut their supply to save costs without dampening effects. However, there is no way to know the dosage used or the evenness of distribution in the supply.

Using a test strip on a drug before consuming it is a way to find out if fentanyl is present. Naloxone, which comes in nasal or injectable form, can be administered during an opioid overdose to rapidly reverse its effects.

In July of this year, the King County City Council declared fentanyl a public health crisis, responding to a 46% increase in overdoses compared last year. King County’s overdose data dashboard is available to the public and breaks down fentanyl-related deaths demographically. According to their annual cumulative report from 2021, some of the communities at highest risk were people between 20 and 29 (30%) and housed (98%).

A large majority of college-campus students fall into both risk categories and university leadership may face a debate about distributing fentanyl test kits or naloxone on campus. Stigmatization is a large barrier to fully implemented harm reduction. Drug use is a societal taboo, it is considered wrong, dangerous, punishable. However, no matter the belief, 96% of fentanyl-related deaths in King County were accidental and preventable.

“We had a hard time developing a following, because who wants to go to an online meeting after like four/six hours of Zoom class?” says Bird, about starting UW SSDP during the pandemic.

“Now, it’s awesome. Now we have like a consistent 30-50 people coming to all of our weekly meetings. It’s great.”

UW SSDP seeks to help shift public mindset from punitive on drug-related problems toward a public-health framework. But, above all else, they want to keep their peers safe. This was the inspiration behind starting their on-campus fentanyl test distribution center, which is open to all students, staff, and faculty at the university. However anyone, even without UW affiliation, is encouraged to reach out to UW SSDP through Instagram direct message or email for inquiries on supplies.

To keep their on-campus distribution site in stock, UW SSPD members frequently meet to assemble test kits. Meetings are held every Thursday, and any UW student who is interested is encouraged to attend. The Hall Health site, pictured above, is located in the front lobby for easy access. No permission or appointment is required. Photo/SSDP UW.

“That was kind of Griffin and I’s brainchild,” says Zoe Fanning, current outreach coordinator.

“It was a lot of what we’ve spent last year basically like trying to get happen. I’d argue that was one of our first big wins on campus as UW SSDP”

At Hall Health, the campus care center, students are able to pick up an UW SSDP “goodie bag” free of charge. The kits contain four fentanyl test strips, directions, and resources for further testing information.

For now, UW SSDP gets around 400 free test strips a month from King County, however, they worry that this service won’t be available forever. Once the supplies arrive, UW SSDP members assemble the test kits and stock them at Hall Health. They are located right next to the lobby and easily accessible by all, with no check-in or interaction required. 

“Places like The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA) are a great option (for preventative supplies) but for various reasons, we felt like UW students probably weren’t feeling like they were either welcome in that space or didn’t know about it.” Fanning says. PHRA is a popular community-run organization within King County. Harm reduction services are available to the public through their multiple syringe distribution sites, and a mobile outreach program. 

“We could opine about whether or not that feeling of discomfort is good or bad, but we decided we weren’t going to deal with that. We just wanted to have access for people on campus who didn’t feel like they could go anywhere else to get supplies.”

Though Bird and Fanning are grateful for the success of the distribution site, they have strong feelings about why it was up to students to create it.

“We are the University of Washington, one of the big things we pride about our campus is that we have a world-class medical center and a world-class medical school. So, we have a lot of really great medical resources and UW really pushes that out there and talks about how that is such a big focus,” Bird says.

“But then nowhere on campus do they have any sort of harm reduction resources. In orientation, they don’t talk about any sort of drug use aside from marijuana and alcohol.

“Really, the university, with all of the resources that it puts into the medical center, should be funding fentanyl test strips and naloxone for free, for students to pick up. I know there are PR issues but I think it’s a lot worse of a PR issue if students overdose.”

When asked, a university spokesperson did not provide a comment on the UW SSDP program or give a response to the organization’s assertion that providing naloxone and test strips is UW’s responsibility.

The post UW Students Hope To Popularize Harm Reduction On Their Campus appeared first on The Seattle Medium.