Students Have Been Cranking Up Drug Highs to Deal with COVID Lows

A new survey shows the impact of coronavirus on student drug use, with one jumping out of a window after K-holing while using a VR headset.
December 21, 2020, 4:44pm
Erich via Adobe Stock
Photo: Erich, via Adobe Stock

University students are upping their drug use to dangerous levels to cope with the stresses of COVID-19, new research has found. 

A survey of more than 1,200 university students – two-thirds of whom were women, with most aged 18 to 23 – carried out by drug welfare companies Neurosight and Drugs and Me found extensive levels of drug use, with many getting high more often to cope with the downsides of lockdown. 

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Although more than 80 percent of students said they had taken drugs for fun and as light relief from boredom, half also said they had been taking drugs to deal with feelings of anxiety and depression. Reflecting a rising problem of poor student mental health during the pandemic, one in five said they had received help for mental health problems.

Nearly a third of students told Neurosight they had felt dependent on a drug since the start of the semester. More than one in ten said they had experienced withdrawal symptoms from using drugs, and one in five said they were sometimes unable to control their drug use. 

Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they had used an illegal drug since the start of term, a proportion far higher than the 21 percent reflected in official drug use figures for the 16 to 24 age group. 

In April, research by Drugs and Me found that students were using more cannabis, LSD and benzodiazepines – such as Valium and Xanax – than before the pandemic, while ketamine, cocaine and MDMA use had decreased. When students were questioned during the winter lockdown, the survey found 29 percent of weed users said they were getting stoned every day. 

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Liam*, a final year student at Leeds Trinity University, told VICE World News he was already smoking half a gram of weed every evening before the pandemic, but said he increased his usage to around two grams throughout the day since it started. “I’ve used smoking weed as a coping mechanism,” he said. “It helps me pass the time, and it’s reduced all the existential worries of the pandemic.” 

Since the first lockdown, party drugs have become more popular. Research in November and December found a rise in the use of ketamine, cocaine, MDMA and nitrous oxide – which researchers said is due to a rise in house parties and freshers parties.

Ketamine, a drug whose use is on the rise among young people in Britain, was the second most popular drug among students, with half of student drug users having taken it since the start of the new term. 

Most students said drugs had been commonplace at parties since September, and three-quarters said they were easy to buy. Half of student drug users said they had bought drugs for a friend, a quarter bought using social media apps and one in ten bought over the dark web. Five percent had bought in bulk to sell to other students.

One in five students said they had started taking drugs at university, with 32 percent trying new drugs since the start of term. Almost one in five students said they had experienced unexpected side effects, unintentionally taken higher doses and had a scary experience after getting high. 

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Despite high profile university drug deaths in Newcastle and Cardiff since the start of the semester, only one in five said their university had provided them with safety information concerning illicit drugs.  

Like the majority (64 percent) of students, Mark, a final year student at Oxford Brookes University, and his friends were using drugs to cure their perpetual boredom. 

But one night, while taking ketamine and playing on a VR headset, Mark suffered dissociation, resulting from what he thinks could have been a K-hole. He became convinced that this world and the people around him were fake, and the only way to escape was to kill himself. After distracting his friends, he jumped off the roof of their student house.

Luckily, a car broke his fall and he wound up with some stitches in his head, a couple of black eyes, a punctured lung and a slash down his torso. “The hospital reiterated how confused and surprised they were that nothing worse had happened,” Mark said. 

Mark later accessed some help from his university in the form of online counselling and a student support plan, but he doesn’t feel it’s enough.

A spokesperson for Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK said: “Importantly, regulated venues like clubs and bars often have trained staff and on-site welfare services who are trained to deal with drug-related emergencies. As student drug use moves on campus, it quite literally moves onto universities' doorsteps, so universities need to take greater responsibility for keeping students safe at this time, by making a better effort to provide welfare and harm reduction information and services.”

Commenting on the survey findings, Arda Ozcubukcu, COO of Neurosight, said: “Cannabis is increasingly becoming like alcohol, in terms of how normalised its regular use is and how accessible it is. Students have even more reasons to justify their drug use this academic term: to cope with mental health problems, and to make up for a lacklustre freshers period. And with the increasing popularity of online drug purchases, drug use will stay high and convenient even during lockdowns.”

*Names have been changed