Struggling to Stay: Addiction on Campus

Harm reduction, like addiction itself, has many faces, the question is not—are we as a community doing enough, but rather, how do we do it.

Reed has, over the years, been made aware of the danger and potential consequences of not treating substance addiction seriously.  The question of how substance use should be approached in order to keep students safe, while both complying with federal and state laws, and creating a positive campus culture, is frequently discussed at Reed.  The community agrees that students’ safety should be made a main priority in addressing drug use, but we are unsure of how to do so.

That Reed is focused on students safely using recreational drugs is not in doubt. However, few resources are available for students struggling with serious addiction. This creates a false sense of security regarding drugs on campus and makes it a difficult place for recovering addicts.

Mike Brody, Reed’s Vice President and Dean of Students describes harm reduction broadly as, “the idea that you shouldn’t have to push abstinence as the only way to reduce harm, that some students are going to use, and that our goal is to reduce the harm associated with that use.”

Brody clarified, however, that harm reduction does not mean that abstinence is not an option, because it is obviously a guaranteed way to minimize harm, but rather that it is not the only method of reducing harm. He expressed his concern that this point is not always made explicit in conversations about substance use on campus.  

Brody started his career at Reed as a therapist in the Health and Counseling Center, and assumed his current position five years ago. In his role as Dean of Students he primarily meets with students who come to him with specific concerns about their friends’ and classmates’ AOD use. His approach makes sense, for despite efforts to reduce substance use and abuse on campus, illegal substances will always be present on campus and it is in the best interest of the community to make an effort to give students resources to keep themselves and each other safe.

Others on Reed’s campus share his approach to harm reduction. Christina Johnson ’15, signator for Reed’s chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), says, “I don’t want to judge people’s decisions to do or not do drugs, but I want to provide resources where if you do choose to use substances, you can do it in a safer way.” Like Brody, Johnson makes it clear that the primary goal of SSDP’s actions on campus is to promote safer and more informed use among students using substances.

The SSDP provides a testing kit on campus for powdered substances, including cocaine and MDMA, hosts panels to inform students about safety during Renn Fayre and Spring/Fall, and in 2014 contributed information on safe drug use for the Renn Fayre Student Handbook.

Students define harm reduction as a non-judgmental way of providing resources for Reedies choosing to use substances, however, the administrative definition differs. Some members of the administration believe the most effective way to reduce drug-related harm on campus is by enforcing policies that ban substance use and possession; working to reduce use in conjunction with efforts to make resources for safer use available. Gary Granger, Director of Community Safety, explained that he sees the way in which the CSOs enforce our AOD policy as an “engagement strategy” that is designed to lower use, and says “lower use equals lower risk” to explain why decreasing use on campus is an aspect of harm reduction.

The different tactics to dealing with drug use at Reed, as provided here by Granger, Brody, and Johnson, are examples of methods that are designed to decrease harm in cases of recreational drug use. In terms of reducing the number of medical emergencies related to AOD use on campus, these strategies are able to target specific occurrences (i.e., alcohol poisoning, contamination of substances, etc) which can potentially decrease the harm associated with recreational drug use. However, these strategies do not clearly address the way in which addiction occurs within the Reed community, the way in which students experiencing addiction are reaching out for help, and the tools that we as a community can provide to support them in their recovery.

Johnson mentioned the concern felt by many students that the only answer provided by the administration for support with recovery, whether through Gary Granger or through Reed’s Health and Counseling Center (HCC), will be a leave of absence. Johnson mentioned that she feels as though, because of the fear around the potential dangers of opiate use that, “the administration hears something and they don’t necessarily make the right decision to reduce harm for the person who is using.” She doesn’t believe this is due to a lack of administrative care, but rather that concern around liability to the school necessarily plays a role in the decisions made in situations involving opiate use.  

A student at Reed, who experienced the realities of addiction early in his Reed career and has now been fully sober for two and a half years, explained some of the reasons why the push for students who are in recovery to take time off may not be a helpful way of providing support. He says, “There are a lot of barriers in place, because if you ask someone to try to convince someone to take leave, in a therapeutic setting, that alienates you from the person you’re talking to…I don’t know anyone who’s like, ‘Yeah, I do have a huge problem and I do need to take leave!’ That never happens, and you alienate yourself as a resource [when you assume taking leave is the only reasonable solution] and further, if you do take leave, specifically for that issue, whoever is financially supporting you, which for most people is their parents, are probably going to have to find out, and for me that is why I did not want to take leave.”

In explaining his own experience at the HCC, he said that because was using stimulants, he had hoped that the HCC would provide support in dealing with the chemical depression that followed his decision to stop using. While the HCC provided him with pamphlets about addiction recovery, his ensuing depression was never directly addressed. He cites depression, as his main road block on the path to recovery. This depression later led to his need to take a leave of absence from Reed.  

This student mentioned, that Reed, much like any other “high stress, high pressure environment” is a particularly difficult place to recover from drug addiction. Similarly, Mike Brody says, “My sense is that and this is from my intuition and also from students talking to me…that Reed is a very difficult place for someone who is in recovery. The social norms on campus, and the sort of expectations on campus…make it very very difficult for people who are trying to stay sober.”

Brody clarifies that while he believes Reed is a difficult place to recover from addiction for many students, he doesn’t want to generalize the experiences of all recovering addicts. He adds, “We have great resources for people who are struggling with drug addiction, I just think the culture makes it tough.”

It seems to be commonly understood that Reed is a difficult place to recover from addiction. Between Reed’s high stress atmosphere, its culture of pride and sometimes mistaken self-sufficiency, and students’ reluctance to take time off, there are significant barriers to asking for help with addiction. The student who discussed his experience with addiction at Reed pointed out that, in addition, Reed’s AOD education during orientation week doesn’t spend much time on dealing addiction. Granger says that discussions about the potential harm of using addictive substances do happen as a part of the AOD process, which involves meeting with a resident director to discuss substance use. However, this discussion of abuse is potentially too late.

But all is not lost. Granger, Brody, and the student all emphasized that there are resources on campus for students who are recovering from addiction. The issue at hand is decidedly not whether Reed College should be directly providing extensive recovery resources, but rather how they should go about educating students on drug use. As highlighted here, there are counselors on campus who can talk about substance use and abuse with students. However, it seems that students who are dedicated to recovery and reaching out either to friends or resources in the greater Portland area still may not be receiving the accommodations from the college that they need to help them stay at Reed while they recover. The question of whether students should be pressured to leave campus to recover has been brought to the forefront as it becomes clear that doing so may not always be a safe, healthy, and helpful solution for students. Rather than setting these expectations of what recovery looks like, it may be helpful to meet students where they are with the recovery process, in a way that is both understanding and compassionate, as well as legally sound.