When it comes to drugs, McGill is still stuck in the past

Moving from drug abstinence to harm reduction

Lowell Wolfe, Arts & Entertainment Editor

According to a 2020 Prison Policy Initiative study on mass incarceration, one in five incarcerated Americans are in prison for a drug-related charge. In the U.S., there are approximately one million drug-related arrests each year, and six times as many arrests for drug possession as there are for drug sales. I myself have loved ones who have faced incarceration, familial ostracization, and travel restrictions because of petty drug charges. A somber weight bears down upon me at the thought of how many people continue to experience the brunt of these punishments. In Canada, new legislation such as Bill C-5 and the proposed Bill C-22 may appear progressive by repealing mandatory minimum drug sentences for drug offenses, but these reforms do little to address the systemic impacts of drug prohibition.

There are many reasons why public and legal tolerance of drug use has been slow to develop. Stigma , anti-drug campaigns in schools, federal and state laws , racism , and no-tolerance drug policies at institutions like McGill continue to privilege out-of-sight, out-of-mind approaches to drug use that are rooted in racist and colonial value systems. By prohibiting and punishing drug use, such policies enact undue harm upon people, especially marginalized and minority communities. These attitudes, at a policy level, feed into the prison-industrial complex by justifying the incarceration of nonviolent offenders, and giving law enforcement more reason to harass and persecute. Certainly, using drugs comes with inherent risks, including physiological and psychological harm. But zero-tolerance drug policies have deleterious effects of their own. For one, they prevent scholars and researchers from asking serious questions about how drugs have affected human history , and how they could positively impact the future. And even worse, these policies can force people to hide their drug use. Fearing legal consequences, users are less likely to access services such as drug testing and safe-use facilitators that reduce said dangers.

There is a long history of political movements using drugs as symbols to scapegoat minority communities. For example, in the early 20th century, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Henry Anslinger promoted propaganda campaigns that used the Spanish word “marijuana” rather than “cannabis” to forge an association between cannabis use and Black and Latinx people. Aslinger’s campaign made xenophobia and anti-drug legislation one and the same. Later on, U.S. President Richard Nixon famously termed drug use “ public enemy number one ” and initiated a “war on drugs” that has resulted in the disproportionately high incarceration of Black and Latino people, who are significantly more likely to receive harsh sentences for the same drug-related crimes as white people.

The criminalization of drug use is often associated with the U.S., and for good reason: The U.S. holds less than five per cent of the world’s population, but nearly 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated people. However, targeting minorities by policing drug use isn’t limited to the U.S. In 2012, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government enacted Bill C-10 (the Safe Streets and Communities Act), which amped up legal consequences for minor drug offenses. It increased the maximum possible penalty for the production of Schedule II drugs—substances which included marijuana at the time— from seven to 14 years . Since the 1980s, Black communities in Canada have been systemically targeted by the country’s own war on drugs, as the Act facilitated intensive policing, racial profiling, and disproportionately high rates of incarceration for Black Canadians.

In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Alexandra Holtom, a knowledge mobilization specialist with the National Safe Supply Community of Practice (NSS-CoP) at the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs ( CAPUD ) explained that this pattern of targeting minorities through drug policies continues into the modern day.

“When we’re talking about criminalization and prohibition, what we actually see is that people of colour, people who are racialized, people with disabilities, queer and trans folks, Indigenous folks all suffer disproportionately highly compared to white individuals, or people of higher class or status,” Holtom said.

CAPUD aims to empower and inform drug users by pushing for drug policy reform and giving drug users a voice in the creation of policies that affect them. At NSS-CoP, Holtom works to facilitate the development of medicalized safer supply models, which provide drug users with known quantities of legal pharmaceutical-grade drugs in an effort to prevent overdoses.

After decades of drug-related fearmongering in news and classrooms , the veils of confusion and apprehension that surround drug use are understandable, although I hesitate to use the term “natural.” Opioid overdoses, addiction, extreme paranoia, and psychosis are truly scary. But despite the harsh reality of these effects, not all illegal drugs induce these symptoms. Some illegal drugs could even potentially be used in therapies for certain conditions. Recent research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs––also known as entheogens or hallucinogens––suggest it might be a good idea to turn away from treating drugs as public enemy number one. One small study involving Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers found that two doses of psilocybin, the main active hallucinogenic chemical in a variety of fungi commonly known as “magic mushrooms,” rapidly relieved depressive symptoms in adults with major depression. The drugs were given in combination with supportive psychotherapy.

“​​I think that our society is changing,” wrote Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, a psychiatric researcher on psychedelics at McGill’s Department of Psychiatry, in an interview with the Tribune . “Young generations are aware that a materialistic and strictly biological vision of life is no longer sufficient. They need more meaning in life, spiritual values. They are asking fundamental questions about human cooperation, togetherness, empathy, the ability to love, mindfulness, acceptance.”

Gobbi’s lab has been researching hallucinogens since 2014. They use techniques from fields such as neurochemistry and behavioural pharmacology to understand the chemical processes behind the effects that hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin have on serotonin and dopamine in the brain. By understanding the parts of the brain they act on, Gobbi and her team hope to uncover applications that psychedelics might have in the treatment of mental illnesses.

“We are trying to [...] run more modern clinical trials in patients with specific mental health conditions (depression, addiction, anxiety, PTSD, OCD) and measure their real clinical efficacy,” Gobbi wrote.

After receiving little-to-no scholarly research following the U.S.’s enactment of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, and the now nearly over War on Drugs, researchers like Gobbi are beginning to realize that entheogens could be a powerful tool in psychotherapy and the treatment of addiction .Studies emerging from McGill’s own The Neuro and the John Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research demonstrate that, in the face of an ever-worsening mental health crisis , re-defining society’s relationship with drug use might offer avenues toward solutions.

“The entire scientific community has understood that pharmacological interventions [in mental health treatment] cannot occur without a psychotherapeutic intervention,” said Gobbi. “While 30 years ago, patients and doctors thought that a pill of Prozac could solve your problems, today we know that all pharmacological interventions also need psychotherapy, especially for psychedelics, which induce an expansion of consciousness, memory, and access to previous trauma.”

When supervised by trained facilitators, patients can consume psychedelics in a setting that allows them to process and interact with traumas and anxieties in intoxicated states that bring out healing and acceptance. These professionals ensure practitioners do not experience adverse psychological and physiological effects. In an interview with the Tribune, Montreal-based visual artist Chris Dyer explained how his participation in ayahuasca ceremonies, an increasingly popular way for people to safely consume a plant-based psychotropic medicine from South America, is a tool for his creative process. Chris’s works, often termed “visionary art,” utilize drug-induced states to remove negative thoughts and experiment with aesthetics.

“In that space, I am doing work to liberate myself from attachments, boxes, […] from the world that has corrupted code and programming that tries to limit us, like traumas, fears,” Dyer said. “I can express whatever I want to express, whether it be visions that I see there, or me just expressing how I feel in the moment.”

Fortunately, more and more places around the world are beginning to pursue research into psychedelics. For instance, in Nov. 2020, Oregon voters passed the groundbreaking Ballot Measure 109 , approving the implementation of a new pilot project called the Psilocybin Program Initiative. The Initiative, which allows the state to manufacture, deliver, and administer psilocybin products under the provision and guise of the newly founded Oregon Psilocybin Services , began in Jan. 2021 and will continue until Dec. 2022—at which point the state hopes to reassess the effects of allowing citizens to legally consume psilocybin products for the first time.

The need for harm reduction at McGill

Rather than outlawing and creating problematic preconceptions about drugs, individuals and institutions both can work toward making drug use safer and less stigmatized. After a string of overdoses last year, Canada began installing opioid dispensers in Victoria, Vancouver, and London, which dispense medical-grade opioids to users. By providing clean opioids, these machines drastically reduce the risk of overdose from fentanyl-laced drugs. In addition, users are now able to obtain opioids while social distancing, rather than going into risky indoor situations.

These types of approaches, grouped under the umbrella term “ harm reduction ,” redefine and improve how society treats drug use and users. Rather than punishing, and stigmatizing drug use, harm reduction simply encourages people to use drugs safely. Holtom explained that when drug use is prohibited and criminalized, people are more likely to consume drugs unsafely in isolation, without knowing the quantity or chemical makeup of the substance.

“Harm reduction can help in creating community, bringing people together ensuring that they’re using as safely as they possibly can,” Holtom said. “And ideally, not in a context in which they’re alone or isolated from others, so that if anything were to happen, they were able to get the help that they need.”

Despite the increasing evidence proving that harm reduction works, McGill remains behind the times when it comes to implementing these services for its students—in particular, for younger undergraduates living in residences. In an interview with the Tribune , Christian Tonnesen, U4 Science and vice-president Floor Fellow of the Association of McGill University Support Employees ( AMUSE ), revealed that McGill’s recent residence policies promote unhealthy stigma around the use of drugs in residences. A veteran of Canadian Students for a Sensible Drug Policy ( CSSDP), Tonnesen claimed that many floor fellows want to take harm reduction-based approaches, but that McGill policies prevent open dialogue between floor fellows and students.

Indeed, the Fall 2020 Residence Handbook informs students living in residence that, “As a member of the Residence community, it is your responsibility to report any instances of inappropriate behavior related to illegal or controlled substances.” In other words, students are told to go to the authorities if they spot or suspect someone using or possessing drugs. This rule forces floor fellows and students to police one another, recreating the exact types of environments where users are likely to consume drugs unsafely. The rule does not account for the potential addictions or chemical dependencies that students in residence might have, and blocks them from seeking help if they want or need it. Although this clause no longer exists in the current student handbook, Tonnesen claimed that McGill administrators continue to demand floor fellows police, and report, the presence and use of illegal substances in residences.

To make matters worse, current residence rules prohibit “drug paraphernalia” within residences—a term left purposely vague on McGill’s part. Depending on one’s interpretation, “paraphernalia” could potentially even encompass important harm-reduction tools like narcan/Naloxone, which can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. In residences, alcohol use is carefully policed, with strictures limiting where, and how much, alcohol can be possessed and consumed within residences. The truth remains that no matter what, some first-year students will use drugs.

“We know in general and especially with young people, that people are going to use drugs, whether they know they’re safe or not, and whether they know what's in them or not,” Holtom said. “We just know that. History shows it, science shows it.”

Though McGill is not preventing drug use writ large, it is preventing safe drug use. Such rules put both students and Floor Fellows into uncomfortable and potentially dangerous positions. Floor fellows fear reporting students, and students fear being reported to upper-level administrators like the Residence Life managers.

“I have to go out of my way many times with my students to be like, ‘Hey guys, I just want you to know, I’m not here to bust you,’” Tonnesen said. “Even then, that comes with a certain amount of, ‘every time I’m doing that, am I going against my employer? Am I risking my hireability by doing that?”

Tonnesen claimed that McGill residences have prohibited floor fellows from practicing bare minimum harm-reduction protocols, since it clashes with their out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to drug use.

“There was a push at one point to get testing kits in residences, but it’s really difficult to square because in McGill’s eyes, the second they put testing kits in residence, that’s an admission [that students are using drugs],” Tonnesen said. “There was no getting testing kits in residence because that was a step too far.”

All of this is happening in the shadow of a burgeoning opioid crisis and a spike in overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dangerous drugs such as fentanyl continue to be found as cutting agents in what users believe to be cocaine. Indeed, Tonnesen recounted a story of residence students who purchased cocaine and, after testing it, found out it was laced with fentanyl.

Despite McGill’s inadvertency toward facilitating—or even allowing—harm-reduction practices on campus and within residence buildings, they continue to brand themselves as harm-reductive. At a 2020 McGill Senate meeting , McGill Provost and Vice-Principal Academic Christopher Manfredi responded to questions about residence harm-reduction policies, claiming that residence employees “ensure every resident is able to live in a community that is safe, respectful, and conducive to learning.” McGill’s Student Housing and Hospitality Services webpage states that McGill residences “use a prevention-based harm reduction approach and provide stimulating living-learning opportunities.”
While these claims might look appealing to a parent interested in sending their child to McGill, they do not reflect the actual conditions of students living in residence. Tonnesen and other floor fellows see a different version of things on the ground. In light of these concerns, floor fellows have initiated a petition that demands that McGill residence regulations create a truly harm-reductive and anti-oppressive residence environment.
“We’re looking for an environment that doesn’t require us to ‘tattle’ on students, because that’s the number one issue,” Tonnesen said. “There needs to be something [in McGill policies] that re-evaluates the harm-reductive approach they’re taking.”

In the meantime, inclusive on-campus groups such as the McGill chapter of CSSDP and MDMA continue to take steps toward creating harm-reductive spaces at McGill—filling in for the administrative deficit.

McGill’s increasingly backwards approach to drug use in residences clearly indicates their tendency to ignore the existence of student drug use. Though they are not stopping students from using drugs, they certainly are stopping them from using drugs safely. Fortunately for McGill, harm reduction isn’t difficult—it simply means treating other human beings with the respect they deserve.

“Practicing harm reduction is not hard,” Tonnesen said. “It requires you to recognize the autonomy of an individual to make choices on your own, which is an inherently easy thing to do: To recognize that you are a person, you make your own decisions, and I do not really have a place in telling you what you can and can’t do with your body.”

Illustrations by Jinny Moon, Design Editor

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dr. Gabriella Gobbi worked at McGill's Neurological Institute In fact, Dr. Gobbi works in the Department of Psychiatry. The Tribune regrets this error.
The interview to Dr. Gobbi was extrapolated from another context and the view contained in this article does not necessarily reflect the sources interviewed.