When I talk to parents of new CU Boulder students each fall, I often thank them for entrusting their children to our care. It’s a responsibility we take seriously across the university, requiring diligence and compassion as we help support the physical, mental and emotional well-being of thousands of young adults.

In the last several years, our campus community – like so many others across the nation – has faced a devastating new threat: fentanyl.

States across the U.S., including Colorado, have faced a deluge of injuries and deaths from the drug, now considered the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18-49. The drug is so lethal that about two milligrams – which fits on the tip of a pencil – is enough to kill. Worst of all, it’s commonly hidden within illicit drugs and counterfeit prescriptions, making it nearly impossible to detect without testing.

Some use the term “fentanyl poisoning,” rather than overdose, to reflect the scary reality that many who die from the drug never intended to use it in the first place.

As we face this scourge across our communities, I’m proud that CU Boulder is taking proactive steps to educate and protect our students from the threat of fentanyl overdoses and deaths. And I’m urging families to have open conversations with their children as early as they can about the risks.

On our campus, the approach is threefold: widespread educational campaigns, prevention and harm reduction, and community partnerships. We aim to meet students where they are, across the entire prevention-to-recovery spectrum.

Sharing factual information about fentanyl at regular intervals is step one. Students receive messages about the drug through our CU Boulder news and social media platforms, as well as via signs and posters placed across campus. 

Our campus webpage on fentanyl, which describes the drug and how to respond to a potential overdose, has been viewed almost 200,000 times since its launch in August 2021.

We’ve also developed successful online and in-person training. Since its creation in 2019, CU’s online training on opioid overdose prevention and response has had more than 4,500 views. Meanwhile, the Health Promotion team conducted 78 outreach events in the fall 2022 semester focused on alcohol and other drug education, reaching almost 900 people.

We also use these training sessions to offer guidance on how to start difficult conversations and how to watch out for one another – and to remind them about CU Boulder’s Amnesty Policy and Colorado’s 911 Good Samaritan law, which offer some legal and disciplinary protections for those who seek or receive help for an overdose. Students shouldn’t fear they will be in trouble if they call 911 when someone needs help.  

Our educational efforts also include information and training on how to obtain and use naloxone, an FDA-approved medication that can temporarily reverse opioid overdoses.

Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan and used as a nasal spray, is available for free without a prescription at our Wardenburg Health Center. Since July 2022, CU Boulder has distributed 510 boxes of naloxone, a total of 1,020 doses, along with overdose prevention information.

Students on campus can also order a free “Safer Night Out” box containing naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and information straight to their residence hall. Already, 99 students have placed an order since the program launched in mid-January.

Finally, we know that Boulder is not the only community experiencing harm from drug use and misuse. We rely on data and partnerships with entities in Boulder and beyond to ensure that we’re sharing and gathering the most up-to-date information to help our community.

☀ MORE IN OPINION

In fall 2022, the CU Boulder Police Department became the among the first Colorado campuses to join the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, a national system that tracks suspected overdoses in real time to aid public safety and public health organizations.

We also partner with the Boulder County Substance Use Advisory Group to monitor local and national trends and share the latest research and tactics. It takes a combined effort between schools, families, public health, the justice system and community members to make a difference, and we are committed to playing our part.

We recognize that young people entering adulthood are drawn to experimentation, pushing limits and taking risks; our efforts are focused on preventing the worst outcomes and connecting students to resources. 

Building a community that’s committed to caring for and about one another has a tremendously positive effect on all that we seek to accomplish as a university.


Philip DiStefano, of Boulder, is chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Philip DiStefano, of Boulder, is chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder and host of the UN Human Rights sponsored Right Here Right Now Global Climate Summit.