There are all kinds of drugs at Yale: those shots of Dubra you downed at last night’s party, that lone cigarette you tipsily bummed outside your entryway afterward, the hangover coffee you’re dousing with creamer at breakfast right now. Substances like alcohol, tobacco and caffeine are ubiquitous in college, and because we all generally understand how these drugs affect our bodies (remember those cheesy posters from high school health class?), we can make smart choices about what and when to use — and often just as crucially, whether to use at all. Mother Yale provides additional resources to promote responsible drinking habits in particular, including free bartender training and educational videos aimed at the incoming freshman class.
Yale’s alcohol policies largely embrace the guiding principle of harm reduction. Video campaigns like “Think About It” concede the inevitability of certain risky or illicit behaviors — for example, underage drinking — and strive to mitigate the potential consequences of those acts. The majority of us intuitively apply harm reduction principles to our lives every day, whether that means practicing safe sex or limiting ourselves to just one slice of dining hall cake. But most of us need a little more research to figure out how the concept translates to situations more taboo than those involving bottom-shelf vodka and rarer than those involving dessert.
Although unsafe drinking rightfully attracts the bulk of our attention, we must place some focus on the harder, more controversial drugs also present here. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 4 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have taken MDMA in the past year, while 6.7 percent have used hallucinogens like psilocybin or LSD. Yale is not immune to this reality.
Last year, the News’ WEEKEND section published an extensive cover story about the use of psychedelics on campus — in a survey accompanying the article, 44 percent of Yale students said they’d used an illegal drug other than alcohol in their time as students; 6.2 percent said they’d tried MDMA. Those stories and statistics — plus a high-profile series of recent overdoses at nearby Wesleyan University — confirm how crucial honest conversations about illicit substances can be. We need bartender training with a pharmacological bent.
But Yale, as an institution, need not take leadership on this issue. Even though researchers are increasingly studying how drugs like MDMA and LSD can be used in medical contexts, a truly candid school-sponsored drug education program still seems the stuff of distant fantasy. Fortunately, we can implement harm reduction on an individual level. Here are a few tips you can take to stay safe.
Remember knowledge is power. Don’t take a drug without researching its effects beforehand. Scientific journals feature innumerable articles that can clarify how a substance will alter your internal chemistry. Groups like DanceSafe — a charity that sends harm reduction materials to electronic music festivals across the country — specialize in more practical tips, like how to prepare for a drug experience or ride out a bad trip. Basic suggestions include staying hydrated, avoiding unfamiliar situations and making sure your drug of choice won’t adversely react with any additional medications you might be taking. Dr. Carl Hart, a leading addiction researcher at Columbia University, provides additional suggestions on his website, like maintaining healthy sleep habits and taking small doses.
Test your drugs. To learn more about identifying illicit substances in a harm reduction context, I watched the 2014 documentary “What’s in My Baggie?” The film reveals how dealers often pass off methamphetamine, bath salts and other nasty research chemicals as pure versions of MDMA — sometimes out of malevolence, other times just out of ignorance. This problem is widespread, according to the documentary. Authorities now suspect that the Wesleyan students hospitalized this past week had taken MDMA cut with various adulterants.
This means you can’t take someone’s word for what you’re taking. Fortunately, DanceSafe and other groups sell color-changing kits you can use to identify substances before you ingest them. The harm reduction group featured in “What’s In My Baggie?” emphasizes that even substances that test positive as MDMA aren’t necessarily 100 percent safe: Several drugs might be mixed together, and having a pure dose of a drug doesn’t preclude taking too much of it or taking it in a dangerous setting. But the documentary makes clear how useful these tests are in immediately identifying the many harmful substances frequently sold as trendy intoxicants. If you can’t do due diligence, just say no.
Some may find this column controversial, but Dr. Carl Hart, the addiction researcher, sums up the spirit of harm reduction best. “Like most parents, I have discouraged drug use among my children,” he writes on his blog. “But, as my 17-year-old prepares to go off to college, I am heartened to know that he is equipped with these important lessons because they will decrease drug-related harms, and ultimately save his life if he does decide to experiment.”
Marissa Medansky is a senior in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.