Punitive university policies around illicit substance use are failing students – but what would an alternative approach look like?
Campaigners are calling on universities to move away from punitive policies and instead turn to harm reduction when it comes to drugs. But what would an alternative approach look like?
When Lucy*, a University of East Anglia graduate, was in second year, she found herself in a terrifying situation after taking what she’d assumed was an ecstasy pill.
“The uni bar had quite a few rave, drum and bass type nights, which attracted quite a lot of drugs,” she tells Huck. “One night, I took a dodgy pill and ended up blacking out. I basically just collapsed and then didn’t respond for about an hour, but I don’t remember any of it.”
Lucy was taken to the medical section where she was treated by volunteer student paramedics and given a “red card”. The red card meant Lucy wouldn’t be allowed back into the club until she booked to talk with someone from the student union about what happened.
According to Lucy, the conversation she attended two days later amounted to little more than a ten-minute telling off. “From what I can remember they weren’t really that interested in what happened, the message was ‘just don’t do it again’,” she says. “Giving me a red card really didn’t do much because I didn’t even remember getting it – apparently the person who had given it to me had a go at me while I was unresponsive.”
The red card Lucy was given by her university did nothing to help her while she was in a potentially dangerous situation, nor did it help to educate her about safe drug use. Such experiences make clear that universities need to do more for students at risk of drug-based harm than provide them with a slap on the wrist.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, drug use is commonplace among university students. A survey taken by drug welfare companies Neurosight and Drugs and Me at the start of the academic year found that 58 per cent of respondents said they had used an illegal drug since the start of term, a figure much higher than those for the general 16 to 24 age group (21 per cent). Crucially, almost one in five respondents said they had experienced unexpected side effects, unintentionally taken higher doses and had a scary experience after getting high and nearly a third had felt dependent on a drug since the start of the academic term.
So why aren’t universities doing more to combat potentially harmful situations like the one Lucy found herself in? Despite having once been crowned joint second in the country for the university whose students take the most drugs, the University of Manchester is a prime example of a university which has failed to offer proportionate care and education for drug users. An investigation by The Tab earlier this year found that the university had fined 584 students, and evicted 17, for drug related offences between 2016 and 2021, but only spent £1000 on drug misuse education in the last academic year.
When asked about this, a University of Manchester spokesperson said: “We do recognise education on recreational drug use and misuse is extremely important for students. That is why we work closely with relevant partnership organisations – such as our Students’ Union, the NHS, Frank and Change, Grow, Live (CGL) – to raise awareness and support students for free.”
They added that staff and students work to “promote harm reduction” and offer pop-up clinics for guidance on drugs and alcohol from CGL, as well as reducing fines “to incentivise attendance at a drugs education session for students found in possession of drugs in halls”.
When Huck approached UAE for a comment, a University spokesperson said: “The University has an anti-drugs policy and provides wellbeing advice and support to all students, which specifically includes advice on dealing with drugs and alcohol abuse. The University employs a team of talk therapists whose expertise includes working directly with individuals with substance misuse, and this service has been in place for a number of years.”
In reality, not every recreational drug user who attempts to access their university’s psychological services manages to get adequate help. When Carla*, an ex-University College London (UCL) student, attempted to get psychological support from her university for an unrelated issue, she was told that its drugs policy meant she wouldn’t be treated if she admitted to using any illicit substances, “because they see it as an inhibitor to the work they do”.
“I eventually disclosed that I regularly smoked weed and would also take MDMA and cocaine because things were bad and it was a coping mechanism I didn’t want to hide,” she says. “Thankfully, my therapist had no issue with it, but said not to mention it to the person I had been assigned the following year.”
She adds: “In both scenarios, it felt like a huge barrier that had an impact on the efficacy of the therapy itself… It made me feel really uncomfortable, like it was a waste of my time. If they would have just allowed me to be open about it, I think it wouldn’t have been so much more beneficial but instead I just felt like a fraud.”
In a statement to Huck, UCL said: “UCL does not have a drugs policy that precludes students who use substances from receiving support, quite the opposite. We encourage these students to ask for help.
“We recognise that the student population is affected by drug use as are other parts of society. All of our Student Support and Wellbeing Services, including Student Psychological and Counselling Services are non-judgemental, we work with students to help them whatever their personal circumstances and refer to specialist services if appropriate. The information a student shares in a therapeutic setting is confidential, the therapists have BACP accreditation and adhere to standards of their professional body.
“SSW staff also have training with Drugstraining.com for staff working in universities. The training examines the changing trends of drug and alcohol use amongst students and provides practical advice on helping students remain safe – in relation to both students physical and mental health. The training also helps our staff who are working with students who are using substances to explore how they can reduce harm and access specialist support if needed.”
Many universities practice a zero-tolerance drugs policy, meaning that students can be punished for using drugs on campus or in halls of residences, and substance misuse services aren’t always readily advertised to students. But such policies rarely deter students from taking drugs, they simply make it more dangerous and exacerbate dependencies. As Maggie Telfer, the CEO of the Bristol Drug Project charity (BDP), says: “All you do by trying to go down a zero-tolerance route is send things behind closed doors and, therefore, you increase the potential for harm when people feel unable to ask for help.”
Davie, a Leeds Trinity student, became dependent on cannabis before university, when he came out of an abusive relationship, but this only worsened at university. Despite going through “the proper channels”, Davie says he was continually denied help from his university, who told him to go through his GP. “I was basically told there was no help available for students struggling with dependency,” he says. “I was directed here, there and everywhere to different uni departments who didn’t want to help.”
He eventually had to refer himself to Forward Leeds, an alcohol and drug service for adults, young people and families in the city. He managed to quit for a few months but found that his dependency worsened in lockdown, “and hasn’t really calmed down since”.
From students being denied psychological help due to intolerant drug policies to others finding themselves in danger after taking something that hadn’t been tested, it’s clear that the general stance on drugs in universities is failing students. As Laura Garius, policy lead at drug law charity, Release, explains: “There is no legal obligation for universities to adopt a zero-tolerance drug policy. The discretion available to institutions is a clear opportunity for universities to minimise the harms caused by current UK drug laws.” But what would the alternative look like?
The University of Bristol recently implemented a harm-reduction drugs policy working closely with the student union (SU) and BDP. Now, instead of punishment, Bristol hopes to educate its students about safe drug use, and to give them a space to talk about their drug use without fear of punishment.
Since the shift in policy, which came as student drug use moved to student homes rather than at clubs and festivals due to the pandemic, Bristol SU has run monthly drop-in education sessions alongside their ‘All About Drugs’ campaign. According to Ruth Day, Bristol’s Student Living Officer, the SU is committed to outreach work on campus and around student residences, and is working with BDP to train staff and personal tutors on how to support students if they make drug or alcohol-related disclosures.
Though some people might suggest that it’s the individual’s responsibility, rather than the university’s, to ‘know their risks’ when it comes to taking illicit drugs, BDP are hoping to achieve a “collective harm reduction knowledge” and a “culture of safety” around drugs. “There’s something about not just knowing your risks, but creating a culture where people and networks know the risks,” Maggie says. “Because if you have taken too much of something, or something that was not what you believed it to be, whether you know the risks or not is irrelevant. It’s the people around you who should also know the risks, and who can try and make sure that you stay safe. What we want is collective knowledge as well as individual knowledge, because that’s what will keep people safe.”
Adopting an alternative stance on drug policy can be risky, particularly in terms of bad press. But, Maggie says, the more institutions that follow suit, the less this will matter. Either way, when the reality is that most students will experiment with illicit drugs while at university, institutions have a responsibility to look after their health.
As Ruth puts it: “Fundamentally, universities do have a duty of care over their students, and especially given the gaps in people’s education, because you’re not taught about any of this stuff at school. The university is in a perfect place to educate.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities
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