August 31, 2011

Regaining Momentum On Medical Amnesty

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GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO TOOK A MAJOR STEP toward fostering a culture of drug and alcohol safety when he signed off on the “Good Samaritan Law” back in July. The provision, which goes into effect Sept. 18, amends the state’s criminal procedure law to protect individuals who seek medical attention for drug overdose or alcohol intoxication.

In practice, students in Collegetown will now be able to call 911 when someone is in physical danger due to drugs or alcohol without the threat of criminal charges being brought against the victim or any witnesses, according to the language of the amendment.

The law does not, however, cover individuals on campus, who instead fall under the Campus Code of Conduct and Cornell’s own, similar Medical Amnesty Policy. Though innovative in its own right when it was introduced in 2002, the University’s policy now tilts more conservative than the state’s. It does not provide protection to students for drugs, and adds an additional requirement for victims of alcohol intoxication: that they subsequently pass Cornell’s “BASICS” alcohol education program.

The need for both the state’s and the University’s medical amnesty programs is clear. According to a report published in 2006 and currently posted on Gannett Health Services’ website, the number two reason students gave for not calling emergency services for an intoxicated friend was for fear of getting the individual “in trouble.”

That is unacceptable. Stringent laws that punish individuals for alcohol or drug use after the fact do nothing to change drinking or drug culture in a community when such activities remain the accepted norms. Such laws are especially troubling on college campuses in social contexts that promote alcohol and drug use and with young individuals who are more prone to experimentation and risks. It is disturbing when these laws can make the difference between life and death. We dismiss the oft-cited notion that medical amnesty programs condone drug and alcohol use by forgiving individuals’ transgressions. It is not contradictory to come out entirely against drug use and alcohol abuse and pursue other means of prevention but still, when it does occur, be willing to step in and protect the health of the individuals involved.

The University has always appeared to understand this. In 2002, it was one of the first universities to pioneer a medical amnesty program, launching an aggressive marketing campaign to promote it. The problem is that not much has changed here in the decade or so since Cornell first introduced the program. The law has remained static, while publicity has apparently slowed.

If the University wants to remain progressive in its approach to alcohol and drug use, then at the very least, Cornell should align its amnesty program with that of the state, which would include expanding the scope of the program to protect victims of drug overdoses. Most importantly, it must also employ a comprehensive marketing campaign that removes fear of punishment and utilizes new and inventive avenues to reach out to students.

To maintain strong medical amnesty policy, Cornell must act in accordance with the state, and ensure that students understand their rights under the law.