The unspoken drug culture among students in the UK

There is an ‘unspoken’ drug culture amongst university students in the UK. In recent years, an overwhelming narrative has emerged that universities across the country have failed to provide their students with honest and direct information about drug harm reduction. Evidence has shown that people who attend university are more likely to experiment with drugs than people who don’t, making universities the ideal place to provide students with effective information on how to stay safe when using drugs, however, this is just not happening.

Shelly Asquith, the vice-president of Welfare at the National Union of Student’s notes that “there is a lack of information from universities about drug use because there is a nervousness about them talking about something illegal.”

Many people consider the UK’s policy on drugs to be ‘backward’ as it is more focused on reducing drug use than it is on reducing harm from drug use. Phillip Terry, a professor at Kingston University who worked at the US National Institute for Drug Abuse for five years says that referring to the UK’s drug policy as ‘backward’ is “a bit strong”, however, he does note that “it’s certainly not progressive”.

He said: “There have been small changes over the last 20 years, but the legal standpoint remains essentially unchanged. A tacit shift towards harm minimization as a key goal needs to happen rather than focussing largely on supply issues.”

A study conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2018, entitled “Taking the Hit: student drug use and how institutions respond” questioned 2,800 students about their personal drug use and 150 universities on their policies toward drug use. The survey found that 80 per cent of students took drugs for recreational purposes. According to the respondents, they took drugs as a means to “enhance social interactions” and improve their confidence.

The study concluded that, “the types of support that universities either offered to students or signposted to them reflected neither the types of support that student respondents tend to access nor those they were most satisfied with, suggesting a disconnect between students’ support needs and the support made available via their educational institutions.”

It makes the recommendation that universities should discard unreasonable and stringent approaches to student drug use in favour of “practical and supportive policies” which aid in facilitating students’ awareness as well as their access to harm reduction information and appropriate support services.

According to the NUS survey “one in four students said they would not feel comfortable disclosing information about their drug use to university services because of fear of punishment.”

A student at Edinburgh University who has chosen to remain anonymous explained: “ I started taking drugs in the first year of my undergraduate, mostly cannabis and MDMA, however in my second year the situation escalated and I got to the point where I needed help. I wouldn’t say that I was  ‘addicted’ to drugs but I was heading down that road. I couldn’t confide in my parents but I also felt that I couldn’t approach the university. I was scared that if I told the university about my situation I would be expelled.”

Drugs and Me (a drug information charity centred around drug harm reduction) was set up by three UCL (University College London) students in 2014 following a rise in MDMA related deaths.  Neuroscience student, Ivan Ezquerra Romano, one of the founding members of the charity said: “When we came to University in London there was a disparity between the amount of drugs people were taking and the acknowledgement of this fact by the university.”

In 2017, Drugs and Me conducted a survey to investigate whether drug-related services and information at universities reflected students’ needs. The survey found that cocaine, MDMA, ketamine and cannabis were the most common drugs first tried by students at university and that 67 per cent of students felt that their drug use increased while at university. The most startling discovery was that 81 per cent of students said they were given no form of drug harm reduction information by their university.

The findings of the surveys conducted on the topic show there is a clear lack of open and honest conversation about drug use at UK universities. Romano notes that the phrase  “harm reduction” is still very ‘taboo’ in UK universities. He said: “embracing harm reduction is seen as accepting that students at that particular university have a drug problem.” Drugs and Me highlights that zero-tolerance approaches to drug policy results in ‘zero drug education’ and that the denial of student drug use only “aggravates the situation and exposes students to avoidable risks.”

84 per cent of respondents to the Drugs and Me survey said: “they would still use illicit drugs despite university policy” however, 91 per cent of them said they would test their drugs if their university provided free and cheap testing facilities  Dr Cart Hart is right in saying that:  “People will always use drugs. They always have used drugs and we must learn to live with this fact,” but, if UK universities offered more proactive information on drug use, it could significantly reduce drug-related harm and death amongst the student population in the UK.

The British culture of “never complain, never explain” is just not good enough anymore.

Originally published as a feature in The River newspaper.

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