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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Student Health Center tests for pot

The Student Health Center has begun enforcement of routine and random drug testing of students prescribed stimulant medications. // Photo illustration by Caleb Galbreath
The Student Health Center has begun enforcement of routine and random drug testing of students prescribed stimulant medications. // Photo illustration by Caleb Galbreath

Starting this quarter, students diagnosed with attention deficit disorders must undergo drug testing for marijuana before they can receive medication from the Student Health Center.

It’s a substance-free policy that has existed since ADD/ADHD treatment became available at the Health Center 25 years ago—on paper, at least.

SHC director Emily Gibson described the enforcement as “lax” up until now.

Gibson decided to pursue stricter enforcement when she and other physicians noticed more students, frequently those who self-reported marijuana use, were requesting higher doses of stimulant medication, she said.

“The whole purpose of the stimulant is to help concentration and motivation and reduce impulsivity, so when you use a drug that counteracts that [like marijuana] — no wonder people were asking for higher dosages,” Gibson said.

Before, students only had to sign a contract accepting the Health Center’s intolerance of marijuana before receiving a prescription. Now, they must prove their sobriety with one routine and one random urine drug screen.

A lack of amphetamine in a patient’s system alerts physicians to one of two possibilities.

“We have to be a little skeptical and ask, is that because they want to divert the drug or is this because they’re really taking some other drug that’s counteracting it?” Gibson said.

Senior Sam Ryan recently went through the routine drug screen for the first time in the three years he’s been receiving treatment at the Health Center. Because his test came back negative for marijuana, he was able to receive his medication, he said.

Some of his friends with ADD have not undergone the process because their tests would come back positive, Ryan said.

Ryan’s friends declined an interview with The Western Front because they feared it would result in being unable to receive medication on campus in the future.

After being on the ADD/ADHD medication all day, some people use marijuana to be able to sleep, Ryan said.

“I’ve definitely talked to folks for whom this has been more than an inconvenience, and none of these people have an egregious smoking habit,” Ryan said. “I mean it’s Bellingham — it’s a pretty laissez-faire attitude surrounding marijuana.”

This quarter about 130 students with attention deficit diagnoses returned to the Health Center for their medication under the new drug screening policy. Of those students, only six told Gibson they would seek care off campus, she said.

Those student will have to venture off campus to receive their medications, and probably pay a higher price, Gibson said.

“It is the inconvenience they’re choosing,” she said.

Only three of the physicians at the Health Center will write amphetamine prescriptions for students, Gibson said. The others refuse because they don’t want the risk that comes from being liable to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Gibson said.

The DEA and Washington Board of Pharmacy monitor each controlled-substance prescription the Health Center writes. But individual physicians, not the Health Center as a whole, are the ones who stand to lose their medical licenses, Gibson said.

“When our licenses are on the line, this is a decision we have to make,” she said.

Gibson has considered dropping the program altogether in the past because of its high intensity and an increasing demand for other services. But some students would not stay in college without the focus and motivation the treatment provides, she said.

As long as she is the director, the Health Center will continue to offer stimulants for ADD/ADHD, Gibson said.

“I just feel like we need to offer the service with as much integrity as possible,” she said.

The policy brings up the issue of civil rights conflicting with providers’ obligation to provide safe, effective medical care.

“I’m sure there’s a moral impetus from their perspective, but I don’t think it warrants this policy,” Ryan said. “It seems particularly brutal on a college campus.”

Junior Taylor Kassman doesn’t believe the Health Center should require drug testing for students who are of legal age to purchase marijuana, she said.

“They should be able to make that choice for themselves, whether they want the medication to work or not,” Kassman said. “I feel like Western shouldn’t get involved in that.”

Gibson anticipated some students would be unhappy with the stricter enforcement, but she was surprised so few of the Health Center’s returning patients refused to be tested, she said.

“We’re not doing this to make [students] miserable,” Gibson said. “We’re doing it because it’s good medicine.”

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