Drugs & University: Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense…

Matt Rees spoke with current and former students to understand more about the drug culture at university, and discovered a failing zero-tolerance approach in need for reform. 

by Matt Rees

University is a time when many young adults are released from the comforts of home life and become thrust into a life of independence. Term time represents an opportunity to socialise, party and experiment. New experiences are tried as people enter the ‘growing up’ phase of life before entering the ‘real world’ with full-time work and crippling financial commitments.

Drug taking is undoubtedly one aspect of this. 

“I’d say university and drug-use are pretty synonymous to me – uni is a time to try things you wouldn’t normally and then figure out what you like/don’t” recalls Jess, 22, from the University of Sheffield. “You want to do new things at uni and doing drugs is sort of part of that for me”. As Craig explains, “It’s so easily accessible and a fun way to spend an evening if there’s nothing else to do”. 

Jess and Craig are not outliers in their views.

A 2020 survey of 1,200 British university students found 58% of respondents had used an illicit substance since the start of term. Although no conclusive research has been gathered, data from 2015 suggests that this figure may even be as high as 70%. Weed continues to be the most popular drug, whilst online polls have also shown the popularity of ketamine, MDMA, cocaine and nitrous oxide. 

“It (ketamine) can have you seeing, remembering, and feeling some really crazy stuff that you can’t really unlock naturally” states Craig. When Jack, 21, tells me about some of his best experiences at university, he elaborates on taking MDMA and it “feeling like the greatest night of your life”. 

Experimentation, fun, open-mindedness and ‘casualisation’ goes a long way into explaining why so many students dabble in illicit substances. They are common motivations that many 18–24-year-olds take into other areas of university life – sexual relations, clothing styles and society memberships to name just a few. Drugs fall into this process of discovery and a desire to enhance the social experience. 

Zero-tolerance messaging

Yet, despite this clear openness, universities continue to pursue policies that ignore this reality. In 2017, Anthony Seldon, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, declared his intentions make the university ‘drug free’ by getting students to sign a document promising drug abstinence. At face value, one might laugh at such a suggestion. Yet, this rhetoric embodies the childish consensus of zero-tolerance taken by educational institutions that is set by the political narrative in Britain. 

This is not to say universities are institutions operating with a serious intent to crack down heavily. There was a consensus amongst those who I spoke to that they did not necessarily fear being caught taking drugs. Moreover, a venture onto halls before a night out will show the comfort people have in using in spaces that are not just nightclub toilets. However, there is a need for universities to progress their approach to better reflect the interests of those it needs to protect. 

As Jack, 22, reflects, “I was lucky to be in a sensible friendship group with people who I trusted to give me good advice…people could easily come into university without that and be exposed”. Craig adds “you need a rational approach to making them (drugs) as safe as possible, whilst also stressing there is a significant risk”

This vulnerability is a serious factor undermining drug use by students, particularly those experimenting for the first time. Yet, an environment of care needed to help those is not being taken. From 2016-2021, £350,000 of drug related fines had been issued across British universities. University drug policy webpages largely take the same format, consisting of a few ill-considered paragraphs promoting scaremongering messages. As Jim, 21, summarised, “I don’t feel like there is enough support in place for people…you don’t hear enough about support helplines”. 

Just Say “Know”

The tragic drug-related deaths on halls of Jeni Larmour and Nathaniel Pavlovic in 2020 embody the need for reform. A holistic change in outlook is needed that accepts reality: an extraordinary number of students are regularly taking and experimenting with drugs. Whilst this does not occur, a lacuna of uncertainty exists that inevitably allows danger to creep in. 

Addressing this could begin with the fostering of safe usage advice not draped in scaremongering and fear. Testing centres, pioneered by The Loop and seen at music festivals across the UK, would help ensure a sense of quality control. Promotion of counselling services and discussion groups for those with problematic habits would show a desire to put safety at the forefront of drug policy.

These are not radical ideas that will challenge the core of the war on drugs. It must be acknowledged that universities cannot act outside of the laws set by Westminster. However, these ‘progressive’ institutions need to begin accepting reality and adopting a rhetoric of inclusion, rather than exclusion. 

A recent HEPI report found only 29% of students would feel confident in disclosing information to their institution without fear of punishment. Moreover, every participant I spoke with confirmed that the zero-tolerance rhetoric taken did not deter them from using.

Therefore, a counteracting dynamic exists, whereby the views of students and the approach taken by academic institutions are at a loggerhead. As mental health and sexual services have improved for students, drug policy and support has remained stagnant. 

In early 2022, a taskforce consisting of Unite Students, GuildHE and Independent HE to better reduce harm and tackle supply. This will be completed in conjunction with students, staff and wider stakeholders.

It promises a potential new chapter. Yet, if there is a fundamental inability to accept that students use drugs for pleasure and experimentation, it will likely fail and repeat themes inherent to the devastating war on drugs. 

For personal protection, all participants have been given names that are not their own.  

This piece was written by Matthew Rees. Tweets @MattRees99. Blogs: https://matthewrees2.wordpress.com 

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