Earlier this month, CU-Boulder spokesman Bronson Hilliard speculated that Michael Hoffman, a 21-year-old student from New Jersey who passed away after being found unconscious near an apartment house in the neighborhood known as the Hill, died of an alcohol overdose. Turns out he was mostly correct, although there was a complicating factor: Opana.
According to a coroner's report cited in the Boulder Daily Camera, Hoffman died on August 30 (four days after being transported to an area hospital) of ethanol toxicity -- the technical name for alcohol poisoning. However, he had also taken Opana, a prescription pain drug with a kinship to morphine and heroin. For that reason, what the coroner describes as "oxymorphone toxicity" is also listed as a contributing factor in Hoffman's death.
Mixing alcohol and pills is never a good idea -- but Hoffman apparently wanted to do even more of it than he already had. The Camera adds that messages on his phone indicate that he'd been trying to obtain Adderall, an ADD drug whose stimulative effects are known for allowing people to drink longer without passing out. As for Opana, it, too, is often mixed with alcohol, with even its proponents debating about its safety. However, the drug's manufacturer states: "Co-ingestion of alcohol with Opana® ER may result in a potentially fatal overdose of oxymorphone."
The coroner has officially ruled Hoffman's death an accident -- but in some ways, it was also an accident waiting to happen. Look below for our earlier coverage.
Original item, September 7, 11:44 a.m.: Michael Hoffman, a 21-year-old New Jerseyite attending CU-Boulder, died on August 26 after being found unconscious in front of an apartment in the neighborhood known as the Hill. Yesterday, CU announced that Hoffman perished after a night of drinking, and while an autopsy isn't complete, he's likely the first active student to die of an alcohol overdose since Gordie Bailey in 2004. Is there anything CU could have done to prevent it?
According to CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard, probably not, despite unprecedented efforts on behalf of the school to educate students about alcohol and drug use.
"It's frustrating and tragic at the same time," he concedes. "The sad reality is, we're not going to reach every student. We're not going to make a dent in the consciousness of each one of them. But we've got to keep trying."
Hilliard (who -- full disclosure -- is a longtime friend and godfather to one of my daughters, a current CU student) draws a distinction between "alcohol overdose" and "alcohol-related," the term used by the Boulder Daily Camera in its article about Hoffman's death. He concedes that "we may have five-to-seven student deaths per year out of a population of about 30,000 students, and usually a couple of those are related somehow to drugs and alcohol." Automobile accidents and suicides are possible examples. In addition, one individual who was on what Hilliard refers to as "a time-out program from the university" died from a combination of alcohol and drugs, but he wasn't an active student at the time.
Which brings us back to Bailey, who died while pledging to a fraternity, Chi Psi. His family, which started a foundation in his name, settled with fraternity in 2009.
In the wake of Bailey's death, CU instituted new programs intended to prevent such incidents in the future, and Hilliard notes that many more have been added over the years since then. For instance, each incoming freshman is required to take an online alcohol class before enrolling -- and the university begins contacting students about alcohol and drug issues prior to their arrival on campus. These themes are also sounded during orientation. And this year, another strategy was added to the mix.
"We sent a series of short e-mails to students late at night during the first week of school on a variety of issues related to safety," Hilliard points out, "and we sent one last Thursday night on alcohol and drug issues written by our Assistant Vice Chancellor for Health and Wellness, Don Misch, who's a Harvard trained physician and one of the thought leaders on the issue of alcohol and drug use among college-age people. And on the home page of our website, we have two story reports -- one about personal safety and one about alcohol and drugs. We've had them up since the first of August, because we wanted to hit students who had just enrolled or were coming back to school."
CU is also pouring more dollars into treatment and counseling for issues that underlie drug and alcohol abuse, including stress, offering on-campus activities like the annual welcome concert and an activity night at the University Memorial Center, and is coordinating with the City and County of Boulder and the local school district to develop community-wide approaches -- like trying to get bars and restaurants to limit the number of drinks they serve. "We're doing more about alcohol and drugs, offering more resources, and certainly offering more messages than we ever have," Hilliard says.
None of these efforts appear to have gotten through to Hoffman, and Hilliard concedes that other students may be evading the university's attempts to help them, too. "It's very easy for students to kind of live in their own worlds and communicate on their own terms," he says. "And sometimes it's hard for us to break in, message-wise -- to break into that circle of communication that they have with each other, which is driven by texting and digital communication. We can put out official messages via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook, but if somebody isn't a fan of your Facebook page and they don't check their e-mails, they can be tough to get to. We try to cast a pretty wide net, but incidents like this remind us that we can't save everybody -- and that's a very difficult thing to reconcile."
Still, he continues, "I want people to know how many people are working on this at CU. It involves our total academic mission, our residence, life, housing and dining personnel, our counseling and psychological services resources, our communications department, and there's a commitment from our president down through our chancellor and our vice-chancellor of student affairs. We're spending an incredible amount of time and money and resources on trying to turn this culture around."
That's not easy. Hilliard cites statistics showing that more than 50 percent of students binge drink before entering college, as well as data suggesting that Colorado is among the top states when it comes to alcohol and marijuana use.
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"Sometimes people smugly make fun of Boulder, as if this is the only place where there's a college party, and we know that's not true by what happened at CSU recently" -- a reference to the massive party at the Ram's Pointe apartment complex that resulted in multiple ambulance runs and four arrests, including busts of two current CSU football players. "The real issue is, we have a culture that loves alcohol and drugs, and the students delivered to us are part of this culture. They don't learn to drink and use drugs at CU. A great many of them are bringing those habits with them when they arrive at our doorstep.
"But I want people to know we're owning that problem. Lots of universities don't; they like to disguise their statistics. But we know we have higher-than-average use of alcohol and drugs for college students, and we know our state has higher-than-average use. So we're staring this problem right in the face."
Today, that face looks a lot like Michael Hoffman.