The University of Montana SSDP chapter (Missoula SSDP) had a major win in September of 2020 when a unanimous decision to adopt their proposed medical amnesty policy was announced by their Student Government, which was the beginning of their efforts to bring medical amnesty protections on campus. I had the opportunity to speak to Vice President and Treasurer Michael Layeux ‘20; President Kyle Yoder ‘20; and Chapter Member Colton Tinnin ’21 about the journey to medical amnesty on campus and the lessons that they’d like to share with anyone who is attempting to bring these life-saving protections to their campus.
What is Medical Amnesty?
Michael: In the situation that there is a medical emergency involving alcohol or other drugs, we want to ensure that no one will be given a sanction for calling for help in that situation. At the core of it, it’s about mitigating harm and mitigating risks. Many students have found themselves in situations where they didn’t call for medical support immediately because there were drugs involved.
How did your chapter determine that was the campaign they’ll work on?
Kyle: As a group, we decided this was the first project we’d work on- we thought it would be relatively simple but still impactful. Montana already had medical amnesty protections on the state level, so we didn’t think it would be controversial either. We checked out SSDP’s guidebook for the project and figured it was something we could accomplish on our campus.
Michael: We started on the very first month of COVID hitting America. It was largely Kyle and I doing this work while sheltering in place. It was impossible to host meetings and outreach wasn’t a thing during COVID. I feel like that also had an impact.
You keep framing these as past tense. You “thought” this would be easy. You “thought” this was common sense. That tells me that you had a different experience. What was that experience like?
Kyle: It started with us getting our resolution sponsored in the Student Senate, which passed unanimously. We worked really hard to get to that point, and we thought the rest of the pieces would fall into place after that. But that wasn’t the case.
Michael: Yes, Kyle is right. We made a tactical decision with limited knowledge of campus bureaucracy and thought that getting the Student Council on board was the way to make changes. It took 3 months to get the resolution written, sponsored, and passed with the help of some Student Gov representatives. After the vote, it just sat on the shelf. We were told that administrative processes kept the policy from being considered before next year. We thought that was unacceptable, and began talking to everyone that we thought would have power. We had a lot of conversations that weren’t fruitful because we were talking to the wrong people. Ultimately, it was the administration with all of the power, and the administration was making the business decisions that were best for them. Myself and Kyle contacted all of the people that we could. We got pushback, waved off, and delayed.
Colton: It seems like the university drags its feet on most everything we try and do with the club. Even on little things, like getting our flyers on the medical amnesty policy approved for distribution to university housing.
Michael: We decided that we would catalyze change through public notoriety about the issue. We said “Look, we have contacts with local newspapers, the campus newspaper, and local television stations.” We learned that whenever the university is mentioned in a local news outlet the board members meet to discuss the article within 24 hours. We said to them that we’ve been published, and we know that you haven’t done anything with this policy for the last four months. We are going to go to the press and let them know that you are blockading student safety. Within three hours, we got an email from the head legal counsel of the University saying that, as of that email, there was a temporary medical amnesty protection in place that was verbatim the policy that we had proposed.
I mean, we agonized over our email. We spent hours meticulously writing the email and detailing all of our grievances and what we are going to show the press, including all of the documentation that we’ve been collecting. The documentation was the kicker. They knew that our response would be a PR nightmare for them, and the interim policy was largely what we requested. Four or five months later, they created a working group to make a permanent policy official. There was a lot of misinformation and lack of information through that process, we had to fight to learn what was happening with our policy. Ultimately, the policy was ratified formally this past September.
Anything else that you all want to add?
Kyle: We had an overly optimistic view at first, and that put us at a disadvantage. Anything published in the student newspaper is largely ignored by University officials. They ignore the will of the student body in general, unless it’s something that might threaten their profit margins. The student government has little to no power when it comes to changing university policy.
I would like to touch on the role that COVID played in our scenario. The severity of the drug poisoning crisis skyrocketed due to COVID, which led to the CDC officially changing their position and recommending harm reduction. Thanks to COVID, the university was taking the CDC’s advice pretty seriously at the time; and those bulletins helped show the administration that the evidence was on our side. I think that helped quite a bit with how our ultimatum was received. We communicated to the administration that they would be in a situation where they would get negative PR – the implication being that it would negatively affect their funding. We didn’t use those words; we made sure the message was nuanced but clear. They knew that if we kept our word, then not passing this policy would be a bad move for them financially. This is not the approach we initially wanted to take, but I’m not sure any other approach would have worked.
Michael: Yeah, Kyle’s right. We did all of the appeals, emotional, familial, scientific, and unfortunately, that didn’t get us far. For one, Identifying the key players was huge. Basically, we were spinning our wheels and refining our medical amnesty policy for a long time, when we should have been constantly applying that pressure. I think documentation was an important part. I think that’s what catalyzed the legal council’s response. To play it tactically and do everything right, I wouldn’t recommend going through Student Government because of all of the reasons Kyle shared. The Student Government’s action is a performative piece. There’s no obligation or affirmative action the school needs to take if the student body recognizes something is right. What we need to do is apply pressure to those places that can make those differences, and to identify those groups that have a mission against you, those groups that assume that you or that people who use drugs are in the wrong. I’d recommend finding those key players, finding those points of friction, and addressing them; being professional but being sincere. What is this worth compared to human life? Keep the pressure on, and work with newspapers. But, be careful with what you say to reporters!
Kyle: Yeah that too. During an interview, it’s pretty much impossible to tell whether a reporter is going to put a negative spin on your cause. You want to keep your answers short and have prepared responses if possible. Any reporter, even if they seem friendly, may not like your position and they’ll use a quote that could harm you and your cause.
What comes next to you all?
Michael: Oh, currently we are fighting the administration who is saying that this medical amnesty protection is a one-time use protection per person, despite that not being true. We have gotten the policy in place, but now people need to be properly and widely informed about it.