Staff Editorial: AU must stop ignoring the opioid epidemic in the district
A University-led harm reduction campaign can help save lives, but only if it is effective
There were 411 fatal opioid overdoses in D.C. in 2020. As opioid fatalities continue to increase among young people, learning how to reverse an opioid overdose is a vital skill for college students. Unfortunately, American University does not currently offer these resources.
Narcan, or naloxone HCI, is a nasal spray administered to stop an opioid overdose. In D.C., Narcan is available at many pharmacies or community organizations without a prescription and is easy to administer. The training for it takes minutes and does not require any prior medical experience. As a D.C. community member, AU should be well aware of the opioid crisis and the importance of overdose prevention, but it has failed to take concrete steps to address the issue on campus. Naloxone is currently not distributed directly by AU and trainings on how to use it have typically been planned by students. Currently, there are also no widely-advertised harm reduction programs or education offered on overdose prevention by AU.
AU embracing harm reduction would reduce the stigma surrounding it. An incorrect assumption regarding Narcan training is that learning how to reverse an opioid overdose will cause more people to use drugs. In reality, research has shown that the availability of Narcan does not lead to compensatory drug use. There is no downside to having Narcan on campus; it simply saves lives. Harm reduction is much more effective in saving lives than preaching abstinence.
AU is unable to directly distribute Narcan because under D.C. code it is an entity, rather than an individual, and does not meet the criteria to be a “community-based organization.” AU’s status as a private university also means it cannot require students, faculty or staff to get trained on how to use Narcan.
Although the University told The Eagle it plans on launching an initiative around Narcan and partnering with outside organizations, it is unclear why this program was not started sooner. The date for this launch or any concrete information about it has yet to be announced to the wider AU community. With this new potential program, it must be asked why AU hasn’t taken action sooner. Other universities have been distributing Narcan, at least through their health centers, for years. A great idea, seen at Bridgewater State University, is adding Narcan to the already existing defibrillator boxes on campus.
Like many issues at AU, the burden of mediating the problem has fallen to AU student organizations. So far, there have only been student-led Narcan trainings on campus. These trainings are always overflowing with participants, showing a clear demand for Narcan training on campus among students. If AU won’t directly provide Narcan or Narcan training, they should empower student groups who will. While the University may not be allowed to require Narcan training for students, they should have optional training, perhaps in freshmen orientation.
A self-proclaimed “Community of Care” must look out for its members; not just AU students, but also the greater surrounding community. It’s similar to masks. AU has continued to offer free masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The opioid epidemic should be given similar preventative measures in the form of Narcan training and distribution. Why are condoms, which prevent STIs, free and accessible but Narcan is not?
If AU is unable to directly distribute Narcan on campus, it should make other drug-related harm reduction measures, like fentanyl strips, accessible on campus. AU could partner with professors who are knowledgeable about harm reduction and the opioid crisis, like public health professors, to form concrete ideas. The district’s opioid epidemic campaign is very public. There are signs plastered all over every metro station and throughout the city with resources, including the number people can text to learn where to get Narcan. If Narcan cannot be distributed by AU itself, every student should know where they can get Narcan outside of AU’s campus. AU should adopt a similar strategy, or, at the very least, show public support for opioid harm reduction measures.
Opioid overdoses are a campus issue. There has been and will continue to be drug abuse and overdose on campus. Drug fatalities on campus are preventable, but only with the help of AU.