Most, but not all, students are happy with their university experience

Universities must ditch the zero-tolerance approach to drugs and protect students

Leading higher education think tank HEPI yesterday launched a landmark report calling for an overhaul of the failed zero-tolerance approach to drug use in universities. This is a significant development from a reputable think tank, coming at a crucial juncture. 

With the drug death crisis at an all-time high and showing no signs of plateauing, and drug use patterns shifting significantly because of Covid restrictions, this is a much welcomed intervention from an influential, independent source.

Hedonism and university are synonymous for many students and alumnus, with most looking back fondly at their care-free, substance-fuelled student days. However, whilst excessive alcohol consumption in university is deemed commonplace, trivial, and accepted – it is still dangerous. 

Student Unions – bodies tasked with safeguarding students – regularly ply young people with booze at specially discounted rates, with no legal consequences for over-indulgence. With spiking so prominent in the news, it is shocking that the most commonly used vehicle for spiking is so widely-celebrated in potentially vulnerable situations.

In contrast, students choosing to indulge in illicit drugs have a markedly different experience when it comes to illegal drugs, safety and tolerance from respective universities. There have long been tales of sniffer dogs being marched around halls of residence to “tackle” the drugs crisis. In some universities police prowl the halls, completely invading the personal space of first time out-of-homers. This is done at the behest of the Home Secretary under the guise of being “tough on drugs” but it remains to be proven that this approach has any impact on the availability of drugs whatsoever.

Meanwhile, alcohol is dished out at official uni events, shared with superiors in a casual manner whilst discussing critical theory or marketed in a blatant ‘get drunk quick’ deal at student bars – universities still somehow hold face whilst championing a zero tolerance approach.

Educational institutions, who should be responsible for safeguarding students leaving home for the first time, are failing their patrons which leads to dire, and sometimes fatal consequences. We simply cannot celebrate excessive alcohol cultures whilst demonising drug use.

This is not to encourage drug use, quite the opposite, but the current strategy deployed by most universities is deeply flawed with students suffering the bleakest of consequences. A “bad batch” of ketamine took the lives of a number of Newcastle uni students not long ago, and testimony from the Anyone’s Child campaign group paints painful imagery of vulnerable young students falling victim to the perils of prohibition – leaving let down and broken loved ones.

University messaging related to psychoactive substances is two-pronged. Legal substances are abused and celebrated, whilst illicit substances lead to expulsion, prison or in the most serious of cases, death.

A student interviewed for this piece – who wished to remain anonymous – spoke to in painful detail about the dangers of a supposed “zero tolerance” approach. She witnessed a peer slip into a cycle of problematic drug use, eventually resulting in his tragic death at the age of 19.

In their first week at university, police raided their halls – finding no illicit substances. Understandably, this student was perturbed by the experience. With little mental health or addictions support on offer through university, this young person slipped through the cracks and was found not long after in an unresponsive state. “Death by misadventure”.

In a deeply emotional conversation, the aforementioned young person’s friend harrowingly recounts the experience. “I witnessed both the criminal justice system and university consequences of an ‘unsuccessful’ raid take their toll. My friend was failed by the university, left to die with only their newly acquainted friends to pick up the pieces.”

Visibly shaken, the brave interviewee is given some respite to momentarily process the enormously traumatic event that she witnessed in her halls aged 20. It is more than likely that just downstairs, her peers are enjoying alcohol without a care in the world. 

Binge-drinking should never be championed at university, but equally universities must not isolate those who choose to self-medicate with illegal drugs. Educational institutions have a responsibility to protect their students from the harms of substance abuse – whether this be alcohol or illicit drugs.

Where most are unwilling to embrace a harm reduction-based model, Bristol University has teamed up with the local drug providers – Bristol Drugs Project – to offer professional advice, drug testing kits and support to students experimenting with substances.

This multi-partner agency agreement is a model that should be explored by other universities across the UK. Support for any kind of addiction should be easily accessible but, because of zero tolerance messaging, students simply suffer in silence.

Megan Jones, a Director at social justice charity Cranstoun, highlights the need for relevant third-sector organisations to collaborate with universities to find solutions that protect students from the harms of drug-taking. Cranstoun runs the DIVERT programme “demonstrating that a harm reduction approach gives young people the tools to make informed decisions about drug use.” 

The HEPI report found that a shocking 16% of students surveyed who use drugs had had “scary experiences” on substances, but “did not seek help or call an ambulance” for fear of the criminal consequences. This doesn’t happen with alcohol, authorities are aware of the dangers and prepare adequately. 

Students suffering with problematic use of illicit substances should have access to services without fear of recourse – if they need or want  help. As Jones says, “this isn’t about pulling students into drug and alcohol services if unnecessary. It’s about the right intervention at the right time for an individual.”