Last week, reported The Times, Home Secretary Priti Patel told police chiefs that they need to combat cocaine use on campuses, with raids during freshers’ week being considered “to drive home the message”. While this tactic might make it appear something is being done to tackle rising levels of drug misuse, harm reduction experts and students have criticised it as an absolutely terrible idea.
“If criminalisation stopped students taking drugs, surely there would be some evidence that it works, but there does not seem to be,” said a 26-year-old masters student from south Wales, who asked to remain anonymous, fearing employment-based repercussions. “The government should be promoting harm reduction and providing useful and accessible information on the dangers of substances through drug testing facilities. Harsh rules only cause more harm.”
A number of British universities still take a law-and-order approach to drug use on campus, seeking to eradicate it through suspensions, evictions and surveillance, according to the National Union of Students and Release. St John’s College, Oxford University, for example, threatens “to deal with [students who use drugs with] utmost severity”.
In October of 2019, 23-year-old Daniel Mervis – a student at St John’s who had struggled with drug addiction – died of a mixed drug overdose. In her report this year, the coroner, Professor Fiona Wilcox, criticised the college’s approach to drugs, noting that its policy might discourage “students to seek help for their addiction out of fear of the consequences, either legal or disciplinary”.
She added: “Support by the college may assist students … to access appropriate care, perhaps early on in their addiction, and thus help prevent deaths.”
Bristol University is leading the way when it comes to forward-thinking and health-focused drug policies. “We’ve adopted an evidence-based harm reduction approach, because we recognise that some of our students will choose to use drugs, including alcohol,” said Alison Golden, director of student health and inclusion at the Russell Group university.
“I want students to be safe and well, and understand the risks that they might be taking, and how to minimise those. I believe that’s what keeps people safe. If they know they can come to us for support without the potential for punishment, then hopefully they’ll be more likely to stay safe and avoid life-changing situations. I want us to have sensible conversations with our students.”
Golden said a number of other universities have contacted them for more information on their progressive approach, which several other higher education institutions have already adopted. It comes after student drug deaths in Newcastle and Cardiff last year, and heightened concern over the effect of the pandemic on drug markets.
Emily Jones, a 21-year-old third year student and founder of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at King’s College London, said Patel’s move – in which she also called on police forces to “name and shame” those who use drugs – was emblematic of how many universities, and the government, disregard student wellbeing.
“If someone carrying drugs sees a sniffer dog or a large police presence, they may just take all their drugs at once to avoid being caught, leading to them potentially taking fatal doses,” she said. “Patel’s approach completely dismisses the reasons that many may turn to drugs; not to live in some lavish un-punishable lifestyle, but to find some sort of peace in their mental state.
“Daniel [Mervis] suffered from the illness that is addiction and tried his very best to fight it. Is cracking down on people like him going to do any good?”
A masters student at Cambridge, who asked not to be named fearing employment repercussions, argued that the government’s drug policy is decided upon the basis of “morality, not facts or data”, and echoed the calls that searching university halls simply makes drug use exponentially riskier.
“It often just means people do dangerous things out of panic, like consuming their whole supply to prevent getting caught with the drugs on them,” the 24-year-old said. “Our halls got searched during my undergraduate degree at Durham, and I saw this exact outcome multiple times.
“Government drug policy is outdated and punitive. Abstinence and zero tolerance approaches are never helpful for preventing harm, and fail to acknowledge that young people have always done drugs and will continue to do so regardless of sanctions.”
Martin Powell, from Transform Drug Policy Foundation, pointed out that even Home Office research shows that criminalising and stigmatising people who use drugs does not deter them from doing so.
“But it does deter people from coming forward for help when they need it,” he added. “We hope the police will exercise their good judgement and ignore Priti Patel's calls for a crackdown on students and freshers' parties - which police know are ineffective at best, and at worst, can cost lives.”