'Harm reduction' can effectively promote responsible drinking on campus. JOHN IWANSKI/CC FLICKR

A few weeks into my first year, a friend texted me early one morning saying she needed help. She had a lot to drink the night before and was incredibly hungover. She exhibited all the classic hangover signs — a terrible headache, nausea, and vomiting — but to the extreme.

Consequently, I did something that I would have never thought to do even just a few weeks prior: I told an authority figure, the don of our residence. Fortunately, he responded only with reassurance; neither of us had to worry about facing disciplinary consequences, and we were assured that he would take care of her. Thankfully, it was just a bad hangover and she was back to normal within a day or two.

Drinking during orientation can be a problem under many circumstances. Most first-year students enter university underage, and many have not had much experience with alcohol; consequently, they are probably unsure of how to proceed safely. Considering all of the potential harmful side effects of drinking, a bad hangover is the least of those worries.

In order to address this, each of the colleges adopts a different approach to alcohol and orientation.

Melinda Scott, University College’s Dean of Students, explained in December: “There are some [students] who will choose to consume alcohol regardless of their age. For this reason, we try to balance sanctions for underage drinking with education about the responsible use of alcohol.”

During my orientation at University College (UC), our frosh leaders explained the college’s harm-reduction policy. ‘Harm reduction’ is a strategy created to reduce the harmful consequences that result from certain behaviours, as opposed to abolishing the behaviours. Rather than promoting total abstinence from risky behaviours, such as alcohol or sex, harm reduction focuses on safe practices of those behaviours.

This meant that, for instance, the dons at UC residences had free condoms available outside their doors. And as I learned, it also meant that if anyone had drunk too much, gotten sick, and passed out, we would be able to tell someone, get help, and not worry about getting in trouble. This attitude was consistently emphasized throughout orientation week and beyond — it allowed me to get my friend help without repercussions.

According to the websites for orientation weeks at Trinity College, Woodsworth College, and UTM, students who do not like to party are highly encouraged to come and experience a week full of diverse events intended to include everyone. Non-alcoholic alternative events are offered alongside most of the alcoholic events hosted by Trinity, Woodsworth, and UTM.

Then there are cases, such as New College and Innis College, that host dry orientations with no drinking allowed at events. Nevertheless, even in completely dry orientation weeks, gaining access to alcohol as an underage student can be as easy as walking into a fraternity party or hiding from security at a club night.

The idea of completely eradicating alcohol use during orientation is ultimately pointless. The real question should be how can it be made safer. Though a full blanket ban on alcohol may make some participants more comfortable, leaders can be far more effective in preventing dangerous situations than preventing drinking altogether.

In order to effectively target problem drinking on campus, more colleges, faculties, and organizations should consider adopting a harm reduction strategy. The provision of education, safe events, and trustworthy leaders is crucial to ensuring that students who do choose to drink are safe. This is what harm reduction embodies, and such an approach prevents the most dangerous consequences of risky behaviours from occurring. Ultimately, this makes orientation week all the more enjoyable for all who participate, red cups notwithstanding.

Adina Heisler is a second-year student at University College studying Women and Gender Studies, and English.

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