McGill cannot ignore the fentanyl crisis

Content warning: drug use and overdose

Last week, public health officials in Montreal warned of an imminent fentanyl crisis that poses a serious risk to the city’s drug users. Fentanyl is an opioid prescribed to relieve chronic pain, but its intensity is 40 times that of heroin, and its toxicity 100 times that of morphine. Fentanyl can be found in opiates, as well as party drugs such as cocaine, PCP, and MDMA. Because it’s often present without the consumer’s knowledge, it can easily cause a fatal overdose. In British Columbia, 706 overdose deaths from January to July 2017 involved fentanyl. In Montreal, there have been 24 confirmed drug overdose cases since the beginning of August 2017. Faced with this growing public health crisis, the McGill community must waste no time in supplying the tools and information necessary to keep students safe.

A key step in this direction would be for the University to provide access to naloxone, a chemical compound that stabilizes someone experiencing an overdose for 30-90 minutes until further medical attention is available. Naloxone can be administered by anyone who has received a requisite training, which Montreal Public Health recommends for the general public. Indeed, while city officials work on an action plan to tackle the fentanyl crisis, community organizations have been training people to administer naloxone safely. Meanwhile, some local events and venues have begun keeping a naloxone-trained person on site to maximize safe(r) partying. These initiatives are rooted in a philosophy of harm reduction that ensures the rights of drug users to health and safety, and it is vital for McGill to embrace this same mindset.

Many students use party drugs, meaning the fentanyl crisis necessarily affects the McGill community—yet there seems to be little preparation happening on campus. The McGill Student Emergency Response Team (MSERT), who already receive limited information on responding to drug overdoses, has neither been provided with naloxone nor taught to administer it. Floor fellows who are aware of the crisis have communicated the dangers to their students, but they too have no access to naloxone. McGill Health Services, meanwhile, haven’t communicated with the student population about the fentanyl crisis at all. This lack of information and training around fentanyl is deeply irresponsible. Given the extent to which McGill fosters party culture, the administration must take responsibility for keeping students informed of that culture’s inherent risks.

Individual students, however, should not wait for institutional support before taking action. No matter the setting, from campus parties to one’s own living room, it’s essential that bystanders be equipped to prevent a fatality. At the very least, they must be trained to spot the signs of a fentanyl overdose in time to call for help. These signs include: severe sleepiness, shallow breathing, lips and nails turning blue, unresponsiveness, gurgling sounds or snoring, cold or clammy skin, and abnormally small pupils. In order to address the fentanyl crisis, Canada passed a law in May 2017 that promises immunity from drug possession charges for anyone calling 911 to report an overdose; while this represents important progress, it should be noted that racialized and non-status students will likely still face harassment from law enforcement. In addition to learning the signs and seeking naloxone training, students must demand that McGill take concrete and immediate action to fight the fentanyl crisis.

The McGill Daily editorial board