State government has been slow to respond to a rise in opioid deaths in Texas. But, with an ongoing epidemic in the state, university students have taken things into their own hands. Last week, they convinced the University of Texas System to change its own medical amnesty policy.
When Xavier Rotnofsky ran for UT Austin’s student body president a year ago it was supposed to be a joke. He says he wasn’t really supposed to win.
“The point was to always just be silly. So, in our original platform, we including platform points such as bringing a Chili’s to campus,” he says. “In order to increase transparency within student government we would mandate everyone within student government to wear cellophane. We released a political self-attack ad.”
But Rotnofsky and his running mate, Rohit Mandalapu, did win. And, Rotnofsky says, they figured they should get some good out of it.
“We decided that we would basically take the job seriously,” he says. “So, in that period we formulated a platform with the help of many people.”
One of those people was Stephanie Hamborsky with the UT Chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Among other things, Hamborsky’s group was pushing a medical amnesty policy for drug overdoses. These laws encourage people to call 911 when someone is overdosing on drugs, because they save them from prosecution if they have drugs on them when police and medical attention arrive. Hamborsky argues that law was badly needed on UT’s campus.
“Students are in a very specific position. We are under a lot of stress and pressure. We are also away from home for the very first time,” she says. “We are doing a lot of experimentation. So, I think it’s important for us to be honest about the fact that a lot of students are experimenting with drug use for the first time.”
Hamborksy argues that amnesty ensures overdoses remain a public health issue rather than a legal issue. So, students at UT Austin, including Rotnofsky and Hamborsky, got to work in getting the UT System to change its rules. They asked UT Austin to expand a standing amnesty policy that had only applied to alcohol-related medical emergencies. Rotnofsky says it took time to get everyone in the same room to talk about this, but UT administrators were receptive.
“We were really fortunate that by a few weeks ago we got an email from legal saying that they were ready to meet with UT system’s general counsel, and we did that, and everyone was so supportive,” he says.
Just a few days shy of Ronofksy’s last day as student body president, the UT System updated its policy. A spokesperson with the UT System says that medical amnesty expansion was approved by the UT System Office of General Counsel, the UT System Office of Academic Affairs, UT Austin President Greg Fenves and UT Austin legal affairs, which, Hamborsky says, is a big relief. Now all 14 institutions within the UT System will be able to expand medical amnesty to drug overdoses on their campuses.
“I’m super excited. I’m thrilled. I don’t think it’s a shock though,” Hamborsky says. “I was optimistic about it. I really believed in the UT community's ability to rally around this issue.”
There’s a hitch, though: This policy only protects against charges from the university – meaning a student who calls 911 if their friend is overdosing on an opiate won’t get kicked out of their dorm or lose their financial aid. But, it does not mean they are completely excluded from any possible charges from city or state police. It’s up to law enforcement at that point.
That’s because last year Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed a bill that would have put a statewide medical amnesty law in place. The bill was part of the legislature’s effort to respond to a rise in opioid deaths from prescription pain medication and heroin. Another bill, which was signed into law, was meant to increase access to a drug called Naloxone. When administered, Naloxone stops a person from overdosing on opiates. Hamborsky says her group is trying to get that in campus-wide circulation, too.
“What we are trying to figure out right now is how to get a standing order from a pharmacy nearby so that we can get a regular supply of Naloxone easily accessible,” she says.
And, state government is dragging its feet on this issue, too. The state was supposed to increase access by writing one of those standing orders for the entire state. That way anyone could fill a prescription whenever they want. A spokesman for the state health department says officials are still looking into it.