Kinjo Kiema: University can better emphasize the dangers of mixing drugs

Updated: Jan. 24, 2015 at 5:12 p.m.

Last week, our campus learned that the official cause of death of William Gwathmey, the junior who died in September, was from a lethal mix of drugs.

Since 2011, two other students have also died from mixes of substances like cocaine, Adderall and alcohol. Since those two deaths, there was not any change in the University’s drug policies or programs, and it appears – four months after Gwathmey’s death – that this time will be no different.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Kinjo Kiema

In 2009, a student died from alcohol poisoning. As a result, GW completely overhauled its alcohol policies, pledging to provide more information about how students should help friends who are intoxicated and to offer comprehensive education programs about alcohol abuse.

There’s a key difference between these stories: The alcohol-related death occurred in a residence hall, while the three drug overdoses all happened off campus.

The location of the tragedy should not matter.

Of course, when any incident occurs off campus, its relation to GW’s policies gets murkier – that’s why, for example, controversy arose when GW’s police force wanted to expand its jurisdiction beyond campus borders.

But when it comes to drug use, the University can still act to protect its students. We should still take steps to prevent student overdoses – whether they’re on or off campus. That means proactively creating more comprehensive drug education programs for all students.

Almost every student will be exposed to drugs and alcohol at some point during their four years of college. As of 2013, 22.3 percent of full-time college students were current drug users, while it was estimated that almost 60 percent were current alcohol drinkers and 39 percent were binge drinkers.

A toxic combination of drugs was what led to the deaths of Gwathmey as well as the other students. The University should create programs that specifically teach students about mixing drugs, which can be even more dangerous that using one drug alone.

The resources GW provides now are certainly not as strong as they could be: Our only office on campus dealing with the topic is Health Promotion and Prevention Services, formerly known as the Center for Alcohol and other Drug Education. A majority of what’s listed in the “initiatives” section of HPPS’s website is focused on alcohol, and most of the events I’ve seen around campus are targeted at preventing alcohol abuse.

That’s understandable, given that alcohol is such a large part of college life. But that doesn’t mean HPPS should devote less space to drug education. The most useful tools the office provides on its website are descriptions of different drugs, which isn’t enough. Instead of simply telling students that drugs are harmful and illegal, we should educate students specifically about mixing them.

The University does provide Responsible Alcohol Manager training, which includes information about combining alcohol and other drugs. But that doesn’t cut it. RAM training is generally for designated members of student organizations so they can host events with alcohol. While individuals can volunteer to do the training independently, people who host unregistered parties aren’t beholden to the rules.

There are simple changes the University can make right now to give students more resources, and there are other schools that GW can use a models. University of Notre Dame’s McDonald Center for Student Well-Being lists not only drugs that are popular among college students, but explains their interactions, provides statistics and gives a complete overview of each drug’s consequences. Similarly, Saint Louis University gives their students not just one place to turn for information, but six – from peer groups to counseling services to formal alcohol and drug education programs.

GW can and should follow their lead. We need to be careful not to preach the tired old method of “just say no.” When more than 20 percent of college students are using drugs, that just can’t be effective. Instead, the University needs to focus on counseling, support programs and a realistic approach to education that acknowledges students’ temptations to try drugs.

A community-based organization in North Carolina, Project Lazarus, has been very successful in addressing overdoses in their county. Though their situation is more extreme than GW’s, we can still pay attention to what they’ve learned through their work. Fred Branson, the director of the organization, spoke with me about changing our perceptions about addiction, and how substance abuse should be treated as a public health problem.

“We paint a picture that already is preconceived in most minds that [an overdose] occurred because of abuse and a person making a ‘bad’ choice. No one chooses addiction, but it occurs,” Branson said.

Of course, education and policy reform cannot prevent every tragedy. Though it’s incredibly challenging to stop college students from experimenting with drugs and alcohol, that doesn’t mean the GW community should avoid taking every step possible to help prevent future student overdoses.

Kinjo Kiema, a sophomore majoring in political communication and American studies, is a Hatchet columnist.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
Due to an editing error, The Hatchet incorrectly reported that William Gwathmey’s death occurred last week. Gwathmey died Sept. 19. His cause of death was reported last week. We regret this error.

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