On September 24th, the HWS Administration sent out a school wide email warning students that, “we have learned from health officials that fentanyl – a life threatening, synthetic opioid 50-100 times stronger than heroin – has been found locally, including in marijuana,” and referred students to the amnesty policy. The New York Department of Health (DOH) press release linked from this email described an increase in the number of overdoses from fentanyl in a variety of forms, which did not include marijuana. Upon being asked about the situation, Vice President for Campus Life Becca Barile said that the Colleges were “made aware of a local, specific incident.”
Due to the nature of this case, The Herald cannot independently verify anything that occurred. Fentanyl-laced cannabis has been a subject of national controversy, with very few cases definitively confirmed. Fentanyl is often found in the “heroin… cocaine, crystal methamphetamine and illicitly manufactured pills, including benzodiazepines and other psychostimulants like Molly and MDMA” listed by the DOH press release. But it is not typically found in marijuana. Fentanyl is unfortunately not a new problem for the Geneva area. Epidemiological data reported 11 overdose deaths in Ontario County from synthetic opioids in 2019.
Cannabis specifically is under confusing legal ground in New York State and on college campuses. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, passed in the spring of last year, legalized the possession and use of marijuana by adults in the state and set the stage for the growth of a New York cannabis industry. The first dispensary licenses were granted recently, but none of them will be in the Finger Lakes region despite numerous applications and an expected 9 slots for the first round of approvals due to the ruling of a federal court. District Court Judge Gary Sharpe granted a preliminary injunction against the state approving applications in several New York regions after a Michigan man sued, claiming that the state’s regulations unfairly discriminated against applicants from out of state. A public records request to the state office reviewing applications for any applications from the Geneva area specifically has not been filled at press time. Regardless, the Colleges are bound by federal law to prohibit all federally illegal substances like marijuana.
Naloxone (sold under the name Narcan) is a drug which can reverse an opioid overdose, most often used in a nasal spray. As of August of this year, pharmacists in New York can offer Narcan without a prescription. When asked about whether Campus Safety officers were trained to use it, Barile said “Yes, Campus Safety, as well as most Community Assistants, are trained to use Narcan. Officers carry this on their person.”
Other safeguards, including test strips, provide a way for people to find out if drugs have been contaminated with fentanyl, which can allow them to take steps to reduce their risk of overdose. They have been endorsed by the CDC and the New York DOH.
“We always are looking into advancing our response methods, both with Campus Safety, Finger Lakes Ambulance, and our own HWS EMS. We are evaluating test strips and in the beginning stages to offer wider training outside of student leaders.” said Barile.
When asked if she believed the Colleges were doing enough to prevent drug overdoses on campus, Barile responded:
I think we need to remember that alcohol is also considered a drug and extensive alcohol consumption, too, can be deadly. The ways in which people consume alcohol and other drugs is constantly changing and evolving. We have proactive courses for entering first-year students and on-going education via activities and programs. Our campus response team, the ADAPT (Alcohol and Drugs Awareness, Prevention and Treatment) team, partners with FLACRA and local agencies as well for both proactive education and programs in response. Our policies are designed to reduce alcohol and other drug overdoses, such as limiting the amount, and type, of alcohol on-campus, and having a robust amnesty policy which has increased the number of calls to Campus Safety for alcohol and other drug responses since its inception. Social Host Training is also provided by a national TIPS trainer to be aware of symptoms and appropriate response for situations like this. We have our own EMS, carry Narcan, and continually train our first responders. We plan to enhance the first-year course offering and begin offering similar workshops to wider groups.
Opioid overdoses are a continuing public health problem. The policies and priorities of the Colleges and governments are key to the response.
More information on resources for people who use drugs and community members is available at: the National Harm Reduction Coalition (harmreduction.org); Trillium Health (trilliumhealth.org/) and the New York HOPEline (Call 1-877-8-HOPENY or text HOPENY)