.Narcan at College

When Mel McKernan moved in with her new roommate, Braedon Ellis, they bonded quickly. Every night she would stay up until 1am just waiting for Ellis to get back from her job so they could watch TV together. McKernan, 19, was a second-year student at Seattle University. Ellis was 20 and working as a Domino’s delivery driver.

“She genuinely was the light of my life,” recalled McKernan, who has since transferred to UC Berkeley. “She had this beautiful purple hair. I felt like that was just an aura that she carried around with her.”

McKernan thought she had made a friend for life. The two young women lived with two other roommates in a beautiful waterfront house in Kenmore, Washington. But behind the walls, a darkness lurked. Their other roommates were addicted to fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid.

McKernan had braced herself for the possibility of losing a roommate. But she never expected it to be Ellis. Their magnetic connection severed when Ellis overdosed from a combination of drugs that included fentanyl. 

“It completely changed my view on opioids,” McKernan said. “Because I was like, this could hit anyone. It can hit literally anyone.” 

Fentanyl is now the leading cause of drug-related deaths nationwide. After a new wave of deadly overdoses among Californians 15 to 24 started to rise in 2019, lawmakers turned to California’s public colleges and universities to offer life-saving resources to its students. 

The Campus Opioid Safety Act, which took effect Jan. 1, 2023, required campus health centers at most public colleges and universities to offer students free Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose. Some colleges and universities have since armed students with Narcan, but not all have followed suit.

Fentanyl Deaths Rise 

Today, when someone in the United States dies of a drug-related overdose, it’s usually linked to fentanyl. That’s a change from 20 years ago, when prescription opioids like OxyContin were the leading killer, according to Theo Krzywicki, founder and CEO of End Overdose, a national nonprofit based in Los Angeles aimed at eliminating drug-related overdose deaths, especially among teens and young adults. 

“Fentanyl is a very different drug than OxyContin,” Krzywicki said. “The way people use it has changed.” Because fentanyl delivers a stronger and shorter-lived high than other opioids, people often use more of it, he said, and build up a tolerance to it quickly.

For years, the opioid epidemic hit middle-aged Californians harder, but the new wave brought on a rise in death rates for teens and young adults. By 2021, teens 15 to 19 were five times as likely to die from an opioid overdose compared to 2019. For 20 to 24 year olds, they were over three times as likely. Rates for adults between 25 and 75 years old, meanwhile, roughly doubled in the same time frame.

Recently, opioid-related fatalities among the state’s young people have started to reverse. While death rates for adults 25 and over continue to rise, rates have declined for people under 25. Since 2021, per-capita rates for opioid-related overdose deaths dropped by over a third for Californians 15 to 19 and 20 to 24.

Rising awareness could be what’s driving the recent decline, according to a statement from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. College-aged students increasingly use social media to spread information about the risks of fentanyl and where to find life-saving resources such as Narcan. Young people also tend to have stronger support systems and are less likely to use drugs alone, according to the statement.

Melissa Hurtado, a Central Valley state senator, introduced the Campus Opioid Safety Act, or SB 367, in February of 2021. She said she chose to target college campuses after hearing story after story of young people overdosing in her district.

“It was just such a serious threat,” Hurtado said. “And it still is.”

This January, another law, AB 461, went into effect that added fentanyl test strips to the requirements. The small paper strips can be used by drug users to check if their supply contains fentanyl. Counterfeit prescription pills, made to look like OxyContin or Adderall, often contain fentanyl, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. 

The act requires campus health centers at California State University campuses and community colleges to order free Narcan through a state program called the Naloxone Distribution Project. Schools also must educate their students about preventing overdoses, and let them know where they can find opioid overdose reversal medication. The law “requests” the University of California system to do the same, stopping short of a requirement because of the system’s constitutional autonomy.

At least 100 public colleges in California have Narcan somewhere on campus, according to data from the state distribution project that included a list of all applications from colleges and universities. Although not required by law, some private universities like Stanford also offer Narcan to students. 

Every UC and Cal State campus has ordered Narcan from the state distribution project in the last two years, with the exception of CSU Maritime Academy. However, CSU Maritime said in an email statement that Narcan is available through their student health center. 

Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College students can access Narcan through their respective health services centers.

Lauren Hedlund, a health educator at Cal State Bakersfield, said her team gets the word out to students through tabling, activities and flyers. They also bring Narcan directly to classrooms if an instructor requests it. The instructor shows the training video beforehand. Then the health education team visits the class to answer questions and hand out Narcan.

“It’s just making sure that I can reach as many students as possible so that they’re aware,” Hedlund said. She added that even if a student never needs the resources, they could know someone who does. 

Crushed after losing her close friend, McKernan dropped out of Seattle University and took a year off college to stay home in Sacramento. Now 21 and finding her footing as a transfer student at UC Berkeley, she majors in social welfare. She’s fervent about spreading harm reduction resources like Narcan, destigmatizing addiction and addressing the deeper systemic issues that lead to addiction. 

At her former university, McKernan had tried to organize her fellow students around overdose prevention, but struggled to find enough volunteers. So when she saw students from End Overdose’s UC Berkeley chapter handing out fentanyl test strips in Sproul Plaza on a recent afternoon, she asked immediately if she could join, offering to share infographics she’d made for social media.

Before her roommate’s death, she knew her household would benefit from Narcan, but she didn’t find out where to access it in time. “A lot of people, including myself, just learn about it too late,” McKernan said.

A version of this story with additional information is available at CalMatters.

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