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More British Universities Should Be Helping Students with Their Drugs

Newcastle University just implemented a scheme that allows students to test the purity of their drugs before they take them, which seems like a much better way to reduce harm than refusing to admit students take drugs at all.
Simon Doherty
London, GB

A testing kit and some pills (Photo by Vincent Gallagher)

People who run universities know what students are like. They have to deal with them day-in, day-out. With their sick and their STDs and their terrible taste in wall art. Conveniently, thanks to all that experience, they also know how to help out: they warn against binge drinking, constantly reminding you not to down your entire weekly alcohol allowance before going out on a Monday night. They provide condoms and safe-sex leaflets in the student welfare office. They're on hand to refer you to a specialist if you're experiencing depression or mental health issues.


One thing, however, that British universities are terrible at dealing with is drugs. You don't get realistic, harm-reducing advice in that realm; just the party line: "The university has a zero tolerance approach to…" That's despite the fact that drugs, like alcohol and sex, are typically a pretty central part of many people's university experience.

So hats off to Newcastle University, which has changed its zero tolerance policy towards drug use. Instead, it's endorsed a new campaign that aims to reduce the harmful effects associated with drug use, which was initiated by the city's branch of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). The scheme involves supplying students with drug testing kits that indicate purity and what a substance has been cut with, so that users can better understand what it is they're taking and make more informed decisions.

Holly Mae Robinson (second from left) and other SSDPN members

Holly Mae Robinson, the 20-year-old president of SSDPN and a sociology student, was responsible for spearheading the crusade.

"We identified that drug adulteration was a major problem when it comes to student welfare," she said over the phone yesterday. "We did some research, found out about these testing kits and applied for a special grant to fund the campaign. We are now allowed to put the kits in our Student Advice Centre in the same place where students can collect contraception information and condoms. I could see the university was constantly giving out safety advice regarding alcohol – this is Newcastle; drinking is massive – but they'd ignore drugs completely."


This stance seems to have been somewhat updated since the recent arrival of the SSDP society. A spokesperson for Newcastle University told VICE: "The safest policy is not to take drugs at all, but we also recognise that some students do use, or plan to use, drugs. In this instance, we would strongly encourage them to seek support through our Student Wellbeing Service. Our aim is to balance a tough stance on drugs with our responsibility to ensure the safety and welfare of our students at all times."

Yesterday, the measure received a load of media attention after being described by The Independent as a "world first". So what's the reaction at the university been like?

"Now it's been in the press we've had some negative internet comments," said Holly. "But here we've only had positive reactions. We found that it's something that both drug users and non-drug users think is a good idea, because most people who don't use drugs have friends who do."

READ: I Walked Around Bestival Asking to Test People's Drugs

Nick Jones, the director of EZTest – the company that supplies the kits – told me that this development reminded him of the current situation with cannabis prohibition in the US: "The other universities [that haven't relaxed the rules] are kind of like the other states, looking in and thinking, 'Should we do this now?' It's brilliant; these guys have done something that I didn't think they could do."


I used to work as a student welfare officer at Leeds Beckett University, and I wanted to use our mammoth budget to supply testing kits to the students. I pitched the idea to my superiors but it was aggressively rejected, as the institution would not publicly acknowledge or accept that their students took drugs. It was strictly zero-tolerance. Which is bizarre; plenty of kids arrived at halls fully-fledged drug takers already – it's partly why many of them chose to go to uni in Leeds in the first place.

You only have to look at the recent stream of incidents involving club drugs to appreciate the crucial need for realistic drug education. Let's take one party city, Manchester: last week, two 21-year-old girls were discovered collapsed and unconscious on Princess Street in the city centre after taking "Lego" ecstasy pills. They appear to have recovered now, but not all are so lucky. Faye Allen, 17, tragically passed away the week before after attending an event at the city's Victoria Warehouse. Both incidents are being linked to the unprecedented strength of the MDMA currently going around.

Professor Fiona Measham, government drug adviser and the boss of welfare charity The Loop, was keen to stress to me the dangers of this super-strength MDMA. "People used to think ecstasy was utterly harmless," she said. "But now, given the deaths, I think people are more aware that you can die from just taking too much. If nothing else comes out of this, it's that people now realise that you can take one big dose and it can kill you. That wasn't on the radar ten years ago."


So given the current situation, you can only applaud the efforts of the pioneers at the SSDPN and Newcastle University for embracing a change in attitude that's needed nationwide.


More on VICE:

Hollywood Highs: How They Make Drugs Look Real in Films

A Drug-by-Drug Guide to a Rational UK Drugs Policy

This Is Your Sex on Drugs