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“We only see it when it’s too late, or when the ambulance shows up”

A Floor Fellow’s experience of anti-harm reduction policy in McGill residence

Just over two years ago, McGill made changes to its Code of Community Living (CCL), shifting from a harm reductionist framework to one that required those living in residence to report fellow residents for illicit drug use. Harm reductionist frameworks support those who choose to use substances in a safe way, rather than advocating for abstinence. McGill’s current policies attempt to eradicate possession of substances on campus and to limit the use of legal substances such as marijuana and alcohol. “The CCL came into effect in 2010, and what it essentially was was a policy and penalty book. Before that, there was really no outlined residence handbook guide […] We basically grieved the entirety of that document,” says Christian Tonnesen, VP Floor Fellow at the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE). “And then a funny thing happened, where the CCL suddenly did not exist anymore. There was this new document called the Residence Handbook.”

Tonnesen spoke to the Daily last week, at the beginning of the Floor Fellows’ strike against the university and in light of the administration’s meagre wage offerings and refusal to reach a collective agreement. Harm reduction in residence, Tonnesen explained, has been a key focus of the strike. “We’re really just trying to get to the root of why [they decided] to, in recent years, take a harder stance on drugs and an even harder stance on alcohol.” Tonnesen references the strict rules regarding alcohol and drug consumption that can be found in the Residence Handbook, which bar students from consuming alcohol in public spaces such as common areas, limiting open alcohol to private areas like residents’ rooms, or, in the case of Solin Hall, apartments. The handbook also prohibits “mass consumption,” only referencing drinking games, and specifies that residents can be sanctioned with a verbal or written warning, or Residence Probation. The Residence Handbook fails to specify the details of Residence Probation, only citing the reasons a student may be placed on it and clarifying that, if violated, there may be an escalation of a disciplinary case.

“That only got worse in 2020–2021, it’s the COVID year. So on top of all these rules, we also get a new rule that says if you don’t open the door to someone who knocks, you can be subject to disciplinary action under the Student Conduct Code. It was essentially in response to students who maybe had one other person in their room not opening the door out of fear of being disciplined. And so then they’re like, oh, we need some way to get into these kids’ rooms […] They basically took the Student Disciplinary Code and said, how can we morph this to where you have to obey authority in order for us to be able to check that you’re not breaking the rules?”

The Community Living Standards (CLS) outlined in the Residence Handbook make it so that students are confined to their rooms if they want to consume alcohol, something that was virtually impossible to do with others during the pandemic, particularly during the 2020–2021 year, where no guests were allowed whatsoever. And during the strictest period of guest policy implementation, the alcohol-related section of the Student Conduct Code was enforced strongly: “No more drinking in any space that is not your room, period. No drinking games within residence, period. No socialized drinking events in the residence, period. And finally, we are limiting the size of the bottles you can bring into residence to be a certain size.” With no guests allowed in rooms, including guests from within the same residence, this meant that students were forced either to drink alone, to drink secretly, or to leave residence and drink in other spaces.

“So, of course, then you start to see the next part of students doing stuff in secret, because they’re afraid people will bust them,” Tonnesen explains. “Whereas before, if a student was drinking too much in the common room, the Floor Fellows could see it while they were on duty and keep an eye on it. Now, we only see it when it’s too late, or when the ambulance shows up, which is rough and pretty much anti-harm reduction.” This attitude was the opposite of what many Floor Fellows took the job expecting, especially those that joined prior to the implementation of this policy, who experienced things like floor teas with alcohol and residence parties hosted by the Inter-Residence Council, featuring alcohol with a ticket. “It’s not that drinking was encouraged, but it’s like the opportunity was there, and we were treating you like an adult making adult decisions.” The pushback in recent years has made McGill residences more difficult to consume alcohol in, ultimately making things less safe for the very students in residence McGill claims to protect through its draconian policies.

Students being forced to consume “illicit” materials in secret has, unsurprisingly, proved dangerous. In one such case, students found fentanyl in their drugs after testing, and when Floor Fellows reported the incident to staff, they were told that McGill would only send out a vague and generalized memo concerning fentanyl in supplies in the city, rather than specifying where and with what drug the incident took place. Floor Fellows also asked for drug testing kits to help keep their residents safe, but McGill refused. Floor Fellows were told that providing drug testing kits would be a tacit admission of drug use in residence – McGill administration was not willing to face that reality, preferring instead to prioritize its image over the safety of its students. 

It’s hard to trace exactly when the McGill administration shifted its attitude toward substance use in residence, but Tonnesen believes it was after the legalization of marijuana in October 2018. “McGill had what one could say was a knee-jerk reaction,” Tonnesen explains, “and they essentially said, kids can smoke now, how can we relate that to us?” According to Tonnesen, McGill originally planned to not allow for possession of marijuana anywhere on campus. After acknowledging the illegality of that demand, the university instead decided to make it so that students could own marijiana but could not consume marijuana in residence. “I was like, even sprays or gummies or anything? And they said no, no drugs. And we said, okay, that’s kind of against everything we stand for. But sure.”

McGill banning all marijuana consumption in residence, and strictly enforcing this rule, forces students to go off campus to experiment with drugs. Not only this, but McGill demands a medical certificate for the consumption of marijuana on its properties – something practically unheard of in Montreal – and impossible to obtain for someone using cannabis for common medical needs, such as to help with cramps or nausea. Consuming marijuana can be a negative experience for some people, especially when consumed in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable environment. These restrictions put students in a situation where they are unable to experiment in a safe space, something that can have a real negative impact on students, particularly when administration knows that students will experiment with drugs during their time at university regardless of their own regulations. Being far from Floor Fellows and the safety of their own dorm can make a common university experience frightening for students.

The Residence Handbook’s regulations regarding possession of “drug paraphernalia” further stigmatizes relatively innocuous recreational drug use, particularly of marijuana. The handbook states, “Possession and storage of drug paraphernalia in residence is prohibited. This includes bongs, pipes, vaporizers, and any other device associated with the consumption and usage of drugs,” and “consumption of an illegal drug or non-prescribed medication will result in residence sanctions.” This means that students are entirely unable to store items used for consumption of drugs, even if those students are not intending to use those drugs in residence. Under this definition, drug testing kits would be considered “drug paraphernalia” as they are “associated with the consumption and usage of drugs.” McGill has therefore created an environment where students cannot be sure that they can keep materials that would ensure their safety should they choose to consume drugs, thereby endangering students’ lives and wellbeing. 

Tonnesen notes that there’s no clear way students can know what types and styles of sanctions they may receive upon violation of the Community Living Standards: “That depends on the RLM [Residence Life Manager] you talk to. There’s no set standard for that.” The Residence Handbook lists a variety of disciplinary measures, which all have vague definitions. For instance, two of the sanctions are named “Community Repair” and “Educational Sanction,” with one suggesting  that a student may be made to make “promotional materials to raise awareness” and the other suggesting “educational posters” be made by the student being disciplined -– the lack of clear differentiation between these types of “educational sanctions” demonstrates the vagueness of McGill’s policy regarding disciplinary measures. The section also explains that RLMs may choose to enforce “Discretionary Sanctions,” which could include “room reallocation, access restrictions, restitution damages, or fines.” For students found to be violating a policy that either directly or indirectly relates to COVID-19 policies, their case will be managed under the McGill Code of Conduct disciplinary process instead of by their RLM, creating further confusion about the complaints process and a lack of clear standardization of sanctions. The policy does not make clear which of these sanctions qualifies “Residence Probation,” as mentioned elsewhere in the Handbook. 

Tonnesen believes that this has led to a “very toxic culture” in McGill residence, particularly in regards to regulations that he states technically require him to report any violation of the Community Living Standards to higher-ups: “There was another rule that came out […] it said, hey, if you’re a residence student, and you see someone breaking these rules, or have an object [for example, bongs or pipes] and you don’t report it, you could also be liable then if it gets found out. So, essentially, snitch or you could get in trouble.” Tonnesen believes that this has contributed to an environment of fear in residences, where students are afraid of the sanctions they might face should they not report drug usage in residence. He notes that, “We have this culture, then, of fear of drugs, which works in McGill’s favour, of course, because for them the less drugs in residence the better. That means less liability that they have to hold on to.”

“For Floor Fellows, though, it puts us in a really rough position,” Tonnesen explains, shedding some light on how hard it has been for those charged with protecting students throughout this period of strict drug and alcohol policy. “How am I supposed to take a harm reduction approach when my students are scared to talk to me because they’re afraid I’ll narc on them to my boss?,” Tonnesen asks, making clear how badly the policies have harmed the relationships between Floor Fellows and the residents they care for. Floor Fellows reportedly miss the days before these policies, where there was a more transparent culture and communication of trust in residences. “There was an open culture of, I might be doing drugs, and I want you to know about it,” Tonnesen explains. “Floor Fellows at that point weren’t restricted. We were like, okay, you can talk to me about doing drugs. I can talk to you about ways to do it safely, and perhaps share our own experiences about that.”

It’s important to remember that it is not just the student residents who have been harmed by these policies. It is also the Floor Fellows who have had their job expectations completely turned around by the anti-harm reductionist framework McGill has decided to work under. “It’s something Floor Fellows have to be really careful about – how they do the messaging for now. We have to say, listen, I want to support you, but obviously if you come to me and are like, Christian, I’m going to do coke later, I may or may not have to tell my boss that someone’s going to do an illegal substance in residence, which is pretty dangerous […] Telling me puts me in a weird position of either I break the rules and don’t tell my boss and I support the student, or I have to tell my boss and potentially make quite a difficult relationship with a student who might not trust me.” Students can no longer rely on their Floor Fellows in the ways they could before – McGill has harmed that relationship. 

Ultimately, McGill’s policies make things dangerous for student residents and for students working as Floor Fellows. It’s no secret that drug use is prevalent in universities – it’s estimated that about 54 per cent of McGill students will at least try marijuana during their time at university, and studies by institutes such as the Higher Education Policy Institute consistently demonstrate that students will participate in illicit drug use during their college years. It is not about whether or not students will take drugs during their time at McGill – they will – but it is up to McGill whether or not they want to put students in danger while they consume. Right now, McGill’s intense desire to not be held liable for drug use on campus creates a “culture of fear” in residence, according to Tonnesen, and this makes residence life unsafe for both student residents and Floor Fellows working to supervise them.

Tonnesen would like to correct that, after checking records, the CCL was first issued around 2018, and not 2010.