Medical Amnesty at WU

Originally published in Student Life.

With the beginning of the school year comes Washington University’s newly articulated medical amnesty policy. The policy states that students or groups seeking treatment for alcohol-related illnesses—either for themselves or for another—will not be disciplined for the “presence, possession, or use of alcohol,” except for a thinly described wellness meeting. While the concrete articulation of a medical amnesty policy is a step forward from Wash. U.’s traditionally vague expectations surrounding alcohol, the policy’s vagueness leaves much to be desired.

Set into writing, the medical amnesty policy will hopefully encourage students to seek help for themselves and/or their peers when they’re in danger, and with less hesitation. However, the policy’s vague wording, specifically regarding the “wellness meetings,” could be problematic. By failing to define the nature of the wellness meetings, the administration leaves room for inconsistency. Will the content and tone of the meetings depend on the faculty member the student meets with (also undefined), or will there be a standard format that these meetings must follow? The effectiveness of the policy itself relies on student expectation, and while the administration may assume a vague term like “wellness meeting” encourages positive expectations, the lack of definition might lead to confusion over whether these “extra measures” result in plain admonishment or access to genuinely helpful resources.

We at Student Life hope that the meetings will be non-judgmental, realistic, consistent in their implementation and conducive to behavior changes for a healthier lifestyle. Given these qualifications, the meetings should provide students who have a drinking problem with the resources necessary to recognize and address unhealthy habits. The content of these meetings begs description beyond “non punitive” and “educational” if the policy is to function at the highest level of effectiveness.

The policy also states that disciplinary action will not be sought against groups that seek help for a dangerously intoxicated student, except for cases in which the group engages in other dangerous behavior, such as “sexual assault or violence,” “hazing” and “property damage.” In these cases, medical amnesty will not extend to participating students. While these exceptions seem logical, they too can result in problems. For instance, if a student becomes dangerously intoxicated as a result of hazing, is the group less likely to seek help for the student knowing that the group will face disciplinary measures for the hazing activity? Questions like these could limit the policy’s effectiveness for larger events.

The policy also mentions that it cannot speak to the actions of local law enforcement, which can pursue charges against the student. Again, the language here fails to clarify situations in which this could be a possibility, and might discourage students who would otherwise seek help from WUPD or other local police (EST does not respond off campus). Of course, the University’s alcohol policy does not stand above the law and the University cannot be expected to hold any power over law enforcement, but this section of the written policy is yet another area that could use more explanation.

As an administration, Washington University is put in a difficult place when it comes to articulating substance policies. Though the University can’t outright condone the underage use of alcohol, failing to acknowledge the prevalence of underaged drinking in college is equally harmful. Medical amnesty will hopefully start a realistic conversation on campus about drinking culture and its effect on students here.

Overall, the policy could be a helpful addition to the University for the safety and wellness of its students, but without more concrete explanation of its various elements, the policy’s effectiveness may be lost under the power given to the administration by its ambiguity.