Stop the Tragic Loss of Life: Protect Students & Young People

by Ella Walsh


There have been four drug related deaths reported in Northumbria over this weekend. Consequently the Northcumbria police force have issued an urgent drugs warning with regards to these incidents, urging the public not to risk taking drugs. The initial statement which did not mention the specific drug, has now been updated to reveal the drugs linked to the tragic incidents.

Whilst the force is right to issue a warning, those in the field of drug reform would welcome more than a blanket ‘don’t do drugs’ statement that fails to protect and inform those who might be endangered from high-purity or mis-sold drugs that might be in circulation. Challenging the problematic “just say no” statements, Chair of LEAP UK and former undercover police officer, Neil Woods spoke to Volteface about the tragic events:

Yet another tragedy, my heart goes out to the family and friends. The worst part of this is that these deaths were most likely preventable. Obviously the police are limited in what they will say at this stage because an investigation is ongoing, but I will be very surprised if this tragedy was not as a result of the illicit nature of the drug consumed. All drugs are more dangerous when they’re illegal. I have a real problem with the way the police press release tragedies like this. We know that ‘just say no’ messaging has no beneficial effect. At every opportunity police should be clear and provide the correct harm reduction advice.” – Neil Woods, LEAP

Acknowledging the responsibility of the police with regards to informing the public of deadly batches of drugs, Neil highlighted that this warning should be given alongside harm reduction advice noting that “They may not say ‘no’ but they may pay attention when told to take less, and in a safer setting”. Concluding that “the right advice might save the next lives”. Much of what is being reported with regards to these drug-related fatalities focuses on the investigation into the suspects who have supplied the drugs. Undoubtedly justice and the rule of law are of great importance. However, there has been little focus on how the punitive nature of UK drug policy does little to reduce the reality of drug-related harm. 

Grahame Morris, Labour MP for Easington, echos the warnings of the police with regards to the risks of taking drugs, but he also rightly recognises how the shortcomings of national drug policy adds to the risk of drug-related harm. Morris told Volteface:

“My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the four young people who died.

We have fought a war on drugs for nearly 50 years. It has left organised crime in control of the market, supplying drugs of unknown strength, unknown quality, and potentially cut and tainted with a range of other substances. UK drugs policy is one of criminalisation, which maximises the harm to the community and individual. There are examples of best practice across the world, where zero-tolerance is replaced with education, harm reduction, and a public health approach towards problematic drug use.”- Grahame Morris MP

Three out of four fatalities from this weekend were students. One student from Northumbria university, whose death is linked to taking MDMA, and two students from Newcastle University, who died as a result of what is believed to be ketamine. This tragic loss of life reiterates the urgency of the work of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), which has been engaging with universities on the issue of drug related harm and death amongst students. 

“We’re really shocked and upset by the news and it’s the worst way to be proven right. Universities need to take this as a wake-up call to change the way they address drug use.”- Dasha Anderson, SSDP

For many young people university is the first time they will experience independence, this new sense of freedom provides many with the opportunity to experiment with drugs. Whilst at university students may be exposed to drugs for the first time, or be exposed to drugs they haven’t used before. Research conducted by SSDP found that 56% of students sampled currently use or have used drugs before. Highlighting that drug use amongst students is highly prevalent, in turn emphasising SSDP’s call for universities to adopt a progressive, and pragmatic approach to drug use amongst students. Moreover, SSDP found that 70% of those who had used drugs had taken measures to reduce the risk of drug-related harm; indicating that students who are informed will take additional measures to ensure their safety. 

“The reality is that many students use drugs and this happens at every university, We are calling on universities to replace zero tolerance drug policies with welfare-orientated policies that focus on reducing drug-related harm and equipping students with the resources they need to make informed decisions surrounding drug and alcohol use. Zero tolerance drug policies breed fear and stigma and can discourage students from seeking help. This can have a life or death consequence as it discourages students from calling emergency services in drug-related emergencies or going to the university for help when they are struggling with their drug use.”- SSDP

The incidents of this weekend further stress the concerns raised by the SSDP with regards to the impact of lockdown restrictions and social distancing on drug use amongst students. 

This is a painful reminder that our work is far from done and is only made more vital during the pandemic as drug use moves out of regulated venues and into students halls and houses.” -SSDP

The North East of England has been on local lockdown since 17th September, placing further restrictions on student social and nightlife. As laid out in this piece from SSDP in Volteface’s blog, it is expected that this will impact students drug use and potentially increase the risks associated with using drugs.

SSDP works closely with Neurosight, a harm reduction consultancy, which aims to ‘improve the policies and processes organisations have in place, deliver bespoke educational interventions and conduct research to reduce economic, psychological and physical harm due to drug use.’

The director of Neurosight, Arda, adds further support to the concerns of the SSDP, reinforcing the duty of care universities have for their students, and the importance of addressing the issue of drug-related harm through a harm reduction drug policy. 

‘Now is the time for Universities up and down the UK to take the issue of drug related harm seriously. Covid-19 has significantly increased the risk of drug overdoses among the student population and without clear, evidenced-based policies protecting students, more deaths will occur. We encourage Universities to implement better systems of education and support by using services like ours and investing in students during this particularly difficult time.’

The consensus based on those we have spoken to including student representatives, a former policing figure, harm reduction experts and a Parliamentarian is that UK universities, police and government must move away from the zero-tolerance narrative that has clearly failed, and move towards protecting young people, some of whom will inevitably experiment with drugs regardless of deterrents. There is responsibility to ensure that these people are safeguarded, educated and informed on the harms associated with their life choices. We must act now to prevent more tragedies.

This piece was written by Ella Walsh.

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