As much as adults like to deny it, cocaine is not an uncommon sight on college campuses. Vassar is no exception to this, as drug use is pervasive in campus party culture. To promote the safety of students and mitigate the effects of risky behavior, Vassar should provide fentanyl testing strips to the student body.
Between January and October of 2020, Dutchess County had 49 deaths due to accidental overdose—one of the highest rates of opioid overdoses in New York State. Many of the deaths were caused by fentanyl-laced cocaine. In recent years, fentanyl—a fast-acting synthetic opioid that can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin according to the CDC—has increasingly invaded the drug markets of New York. Though it is most common in heroin, fentanyl is becoming increasingly present in cocaine and other drugs. NYPD data from April 2021 shows that nearly one in every ten bags of cocaine in New York City now contains fentanyl. Drugs are most often sourced from major nearby cities, meaning that much of Vassar’s cocaine likely comes from New York City and contains fentanyl as well.
Cocaine users are more susceptible to fentanyl overdoses due to their reduced tolerance for hard drugs such as strong synthetic opioids. According to New York City Health data, 81 percent of cocaine-involved overdoses in 2020 involved fentanyl.
As cocaine grows in popularity, the risk of overdose due to fentanyl grows, too. A 2019 study showed that more than 20 percent of the 1,253 students surveyed had opportunities to use cocaine in the past year. The 2019 National Survey Results on Drug Use reported a significant five-year increase in cocaine usage, with 6.5 percent of young adults using the drug in 2019. The possibility of the drug being laced with fentanyl is one major risk involved with the use of cocaine.
The prevalence of drugs, such as cocaine and MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly), laced with fentanyl is an issue that is uncomfortably close to Vassar. It is time to stop ignoring the issue of drug use on campus and instead take steps to ensure that the inevitable use of drugs is done as safely as possible—leaving the issue unaddressed exposes students to unnecessary risks.
“I used to read statistics about the increase in overdose deaths, and it was concerning to me, but I naively and arrogantly didn’t think it would ever impact my life. That was until a childhood friend of mine passed away from an overdose,” Aislynn Russell ’25 said. “I think one of the biggest lapses in awareness comes in people not knowing just how common it is for drugs to be laced, particularly with fentanyl, and that it’s possible for most types of drugs to be laced.”
Fentanyl is often used to cut, or mix into, other drugs due to its low cost and lack of smell or taste, making it difficult to detect without being tested. This lack of noticeable characteristics results in many drug users unknowingly consuming fentanyl. Fentanyl testing strips (FTS) are strips of paper that work to identify the presence of fentanyl in a drug quickly. They are relatively easy to use and can be a valuable tool to help users avoid inadvertently consuming fentanyl.
Multiple studies demonstrate the effectiveness of FTS. According to a 2017 study of 93 18- to 35-year-olds who used drugs in the past 30 days, more than 90 percent of participants said they were willing to use rapid FTS. These results indicate that the distribution of FTS would be an effective strategy in drug-related harm reduction for young adults. A study conducted at a safe injection site in Vancouver provided people with the opportunity to test their drugs. The vast majority of the drugs tested were laced with fentanyl, but a positive result for pre-consumption tests resulted in dose reduction, consequently lessening the odds of overdose.
Though testing strips are inexpensive and can be legally acquired online, the stigma of purchasing them as well as the inconvenience of finding a location to purchase them can act as a deterrent. Fentanyl testing strips should be provided and made easily accessible to students in the same way that condoms are provided to lessen the risks associated with behavior typical of college students.
“I think that the increased availability of FTS and naloxone would make a huge difference in the overall safety of the campus,” Russell said. “As overdoses increase and the prevalence of drugs laced with fentanyl increases, we need to respond by getting equipped with the tools and knowledge necessary in the case that we witness an overdose.”
Nonetheless, the occasional fentanyl overdose is still inevitable. As a contingency measure, Vassar should also provide naloxone, a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. There is no risk to administering naloxone, even in cases where opioids are not present. The benefits are immense—it can save lives in the case of overdose. Thus, Vassar could further reduce the risk of overdoses if naloxone were made easily accessible on campus. Providing naloxone has proven to be an effective measure in other areas: a 2019 University of Michigan study found that distributing naloxone to those likely to witness an overdose—including police, firefighters and EMTs—was a cost-effective strategy in reducing fatal overdoses.
“I often think about how [my friend’s] death likely could have been prevented if we had less stigma around addiction, more education around drug safety, and if we all carried naloxone,” Russell said. “I no longer go anywhere without it, knowing that with it I could potentially save a life.”
Along with the distribution of naloxone, Vassar should also provide educational programming designed to teach students how to administer naloxone. This would enable students to act in the case of an emergency to potentially save a peer’s life.
By implementing safety measures that make access to life-saving protection and tools available to students—providing fentanyl testing strips and accessibility to naloxone—Vassar could reduce the harm done by drug use and improve safety in our school.