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May 3, 2013

College's amnesty policy can save lives

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The Daily Star

---- — The statistics on overdoses among college-age Americans are downright sobering. 

From 1999 to 2008, the rate of hospitalizations following overdose skyrocketed for people ages 18 to 24, according to a study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 

The study’s authors also found that, although most college students recognize the signs of excessive alcohol consumption, only a fraction seek medical help for someone who has had too much to drink. 

Without medical help, alcohol overdoses can be fatal. The news is full of tragic stories of preventable deaths — young people who had too much to drink and were left by their friends to “sleep it off,” only to never wake up. 

That’s why we were glad to see SUNY Oneonta taking steps to encourage students to report medical emergencies related to drugs and alcohol. 

The College Council recently adopted a “Good Samaritan/Medical Amnesty Policy.” Under the policy, students can report an incident of alcohol or drug abuse without facing penalties from the college. 

This is a one-time, “get-out-of-jail-free card” that each student would theoretically get. But it isn’t just handed out freely. Students have to earn their “amnesty” by completing some follow-up work aimed at helping the college determine if there is a larger problem present. 

Critics of “Good Samaritan” policies argue that offering amnesty gives tacit approval to drug use or binge drinking by removing the penalties associated with those behaviors. But this is an oversimplification of a more-subtle tool. 

It’s important to note that students who are caught drinking or using drugs still face the same repercussions as ever. And the college’s policy does not protect students from any criminal charges they might face for underage drinking or illegal drug use. 

What this does say, in essence, is, “If you or your friend has overdosed, and you need life-saving medical help, you can get it without being afraid of getting kicked out of school.”

And the follow-up required may be just as important as its potential lifesaving value. Too often, students in college fly under the radar with serious substance-abuse problems. This policy creates an opportunity for students to receive intervention, rather than reprimand, when there are signs that they may have a problem. 

Drug and alcohol use are serious matters. We’re troubled to learn, for example, that the State University College at Oneonta has seen high numbers of alcohol poisoning cases this year. 

We do not, by any means, believe that the college should be lenient in addressing this problem. 

But protecting the lives of those young people is priority No. 1. If this policy saves even one life, it’s well worth it.