Students for Sensible Drug Policy seek safeguards for intoxicated students

Originally published by the Collegiate Times as News. 
Published in print edition, front page, Friday, Oct. 23, 2015.

The Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at Virginia Tech is leading an effort to bring medical amnesty to campus, providing protection for students who need medical attention.

SSDP is an international grassroots network that neither condones nor condemns drug usage. The movement for medical amnesty goes by different names, such as the Good Samaritan Law and the 911 Lifeline, but the idea is to grant intoxicated minors legal immunity when seeking medical attention.

"We really want to encourage people to call medical services if they're experiencing some kind of overdose-related emergency, right?” said Kyle Gentle, a fifth-year senior and industrial and systems engineering major and president of SSDP. “We don't want them to have to try to decide between potentially saving someone else's life or seriously messing up their own.”

According to an April 2015 national survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, almost 60 percent of college students between 18 and 22 years old reported drinking alcohol in the past month, with almost 40 percent reporting binge drinking in the past 30 days. An estimated 1,825 college students between 18 and 24 years old die each year from alcohol-related injuries, including motor vehicle crashes.

“The bottom line is that if it comes between the choice of possible death, which is the worst case scenario, and maybe possibly having to avoid legal repercussion or consequences from the school, people should be on the safer side,” said Joey Puletti, a junior economic management major and research chair. “I think the safest balance we can find is letting people be comfortable with the fact that they can ask for help.”

SSDP is in early stages of organizing the effort, collecting information and deciding a course of action, with the first aiming to clarify language in the Hokie Handbook on “Self-Reporting and Bystander Intervention.” Virginia Tech expects students to be aware of personal safety and safety of others and to take immediate action in potentially dangerous situations.

“When determining the appropriate response in the conduct process, the Student Conduct office will consider actions taken by any student who seeks assistance on their own behalf or the behalf of another Hokie experiencing a medical emergency related to alcohol or drugs,” stated the Hokie Handbook. “In some cases disciplinary sanctions may be reduced or not imposed.”

All incidents are documented and educational and parental notifications may still be required. The University recognizes the misuse of alcohol and discourages irresponsible or illegal use.

According to the a 2010 survey by the Campus Alcohol Abuse Prevention Center, 77 percent of Virginia Tech students consume alcohol, with 10 percent of students consuming 46 percent of the alcohol.

"Looking at it from the school's standpoint, I think they do want kids to be safe, but with so much vagueness, I think they're trying to keep their options open in terms of what you can do with students,” Puletti said. “I think they do want to keep kids safer, but at the same time, they want to have some sort of consequential control, trying to keep kids from doing this, which I understand because if you come at it from the point of view that there would be no consequences, I could see how kids would almost take advantage of that situation.”

SSDP wants to clarify language about disciplinary action and policies for the 2016-2016 edition of the Hokie Handbook, making safety a priority over consequence.

"What we're sort of hoping to clarify is, in what cases are students protected when they're calling emergency services and in what cases are they not?" Gentle said.

An example of the policy’s implementation is the Good Samaritan Protocol at Cornell University, created in 2002. Attempting to reduce legal barriers, it eliminates judicial consequences for students and others involved in seeking assistance but does not preclude disciplinary action of additional violations, such as sexual violence or property damage.

"Like if someone is driving drunk and they crash into a tree and then they call to say, 'Oh, I've had too much to drink,' I don't think that's a good case where that person should be exempt from any sort of consequences for their actions,” Gentle said. “I think it's still important that students have a sense of personal responsibility for what they're doing, whether or not they're under the influence of alcohol or another type of intoxicant. In those types of cases, we don't want to say it's okay to whatever you've done because you called 911."

According to the July 2006 International Journal of Drug Policy by Cornell, this caused an increase of on-campus alcohol related calls with a decreased percent of calls requiring emergency room visits.

"With regards to alcohol, they're trying to encourage students more to contact medical authorities, rather than being scared about doing that because a lot of times students don't want to do that because they're afraid they're going to get in trouble, so they'll wait and wait and wait to the point where it's too late, and someone gets hurt or worse,” said Chris Artigue, a senior horticulture major and secretary and Student Government Association representative for SSDP.

Current Virginia law provides affirmative defense to the reporter of the incident, given they follow a set of instructions, including remaining at the original and other locations, identifying him or herself and “substantially cooperates in any investigation of criminal offense.”

"I think at the heart of it, this is really a human rights issue,” Artigue said. “We think, as an organization, the policies that have been set in place now do a lot more harm to society than good.” Because of this, the group aims to clarify both state law and university policy so that students have a clear understanding of their rights and protections.

"People are going to party anyway, and it just makes the whole entire school so much safer knowing that you can call for help if you think someone's in danger, without worrying about getting in trouble over something,” said Ashley Charles, a senior marketing major and president of Young Americans for Liberty. “You can worry about whether it's right or wrong after you deal with the fact that the person was overdosing on something and people shouldn't be afraid to seek help.”

SSDP acknowledges a step in the right direction, but sees room for improvement.

“We all see the problem and we know that there's something that we, as students, can do to fix it, so if we recognize that, we're going to do everything we can,” Gentle said. "It comes down to protecting students and encouraging people to do the right thing.”

While SSDP is not working to completely eliminate all consequences, their goal of harm reduction and awareness aims to make medical attention a response, not a choice.

“This is something you can get behind; it's not about politics: it's about safety,” Charles said. “You're not a criminal for wanting to get your friend help, so you shouldn't be treated like one.”

James Hawdon, director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention and faculty advisor of SSDP, declined to comment.

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