Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Amid a national fentanyl crisis, the University of Maryland should go to greater lengths to minimize the risks facing students who use drugs.
Fentanyl, which is often mixed with illicit drugs used for recreational purposes, is dozens of times more potent than heroin and morphine. Thousands of Marylanders die every year from fentanyl-related overdoses.
Officials across all levels of government have taken action to protect their constituents from the risks of overdoses. This university can make students safer by reforming its existing fentanyl test strips distribution program.
In particular, this university should expand students’ access to these test strips by dispensing them without identity confirmation, removing quantity restrictions and promoting their availability to the student body.
To receive free fentanyl test strips, students have to show their student ID at the University Health Center Pharmacy. According to a statement from this university, to provide aggregate data to the Maryland Department of Health, the health center scans these IDs and maintains an internal record of students who have obtained test strips.
However, this requirement could disincentivize students from seeking out these test strips because it creates a record of their association with illicit drug use. The program’s goal should be to minimize students’ risk. Scanning student IDs and maintaining records of their visits detracts from the program’s ability to reach as large of an audience as possible.
Documenting the distribution of fentanyl test strips can exacerbate students’ fears of legal consequences. Removing this requirement could prevent students from thinking twice about accessing a potentially life-saving resource. The university could just as easily keep an anonymized tally of distributed test strips without students’ personal information for reporting purposes.
What’s more, according to this university’s statement, students are strongly encouraged to meet with the university’s alcohol and other drug program coordinator to discuss harm reduction strategies prior to receiving more than one pack of fentanyl test strips.
This meeting is another barrier for students trying to protect themselves or others. Urging students to discuss harm reduction strategies before receiving additional harm reduction resources is ironically misguided.
If I were planning to use drugs one Friday afternoon, I may conceivably seek to minimize my own risks if it’s as easy as picking up a pack of test strips from the health center. But I certainly wouldn’t schedule a formal meeting with a university staff member if I wanted more than one pack of fentanyl strips — nor would I wait for it to occur the next week.
Not having harm reduction resources does not stop people from engaging in risky behaviors. Placing a limitation on the number of fentanyl test strips a student can obtain will not prevent any amount of drug use. But it will make that use less safe.
This policy also casts doubt on whether the test strip distribution truly is anonymous, since numerous pharmacists would likely have to keep track of repeat visitors to encourage participation in the meeting.
Plus, harm reduction programs are supposed to address the risks of drug use without stigmatizing use — and without an expectation that people will stop using because of them.
Messages discouraging drug use altogether aren’t effective either. In fact, they could alienate students who use drugs and disincentivize them from seeking out further resources. Students experiencing drug addiction are the people who need fentanyl test strips the most. Forcing students to meet with a university official to test their drugs stigmatizes them.
Eliminating this recommended meeting, while keeping it as an option for willing participants, will prevent this university’s positive intentions from being undermined. Students using drugs should always be able to test them for fentanyl without arbitrary delays.
Other barriers may be present, too. No in-person training is required to receive fentanyl test strips, according to this university’s statement. But when I asked a pharmacist for a pack to learn more about the distribution process, they declined and directed me to a training sign-up.
The health center should fix its contradictory advertisement because it confuses students at best — and at worst, it prevents them from getting the test strips.
Resources such as this also deserve significantly more attention. For instance, I only learned about the program after pausing to read a flyer on a crowded bulletin board in my dorm. The health center’s website doesn’t refer to the program. Oddly enough, when I looked up the link on the flier for more information, the page didn’t even mention it.
This university should advertise the availability of fentanyl test strips on its online resources to maximize student outreach, particularly on its various social media pages and newsletters. At the end of the day, harm reduction resources should be as widely known as other university initiatives.
For instance, the Gold Code on responsible alcohol use has been reiterated through so many avenues to the point I can recite it from memory despite being here for less than a year. Knowing where and how to test drugs for fentanyl must be as universally understood.
This university is clearly trying to make progress in harm reduction, and we’ve seen important advances. But there are still areas where it can significantly improve. And if this university can save even one life by reforming the fentanyl test strip distribution program, it has the imperative to do so.
Dhruvak Mirani is a freshman computer science and government and politics major. Mirani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.