Why Are Universities So Scared to Talk About Drugs?
While freshers can expect briefings about sexual abuse, personal safety and inequality, on the dangers of drugs, universities clam up.
This article is part of "Safe Sesh", a VICE harm reduction campaign produced in collaboration with The Loop and the Royal Society for Public Health. Read more from the editorial series here.
Drug experiences can be good, fun and interesting, which is why so many people take them. But, as we know from Eastenders and centuries of human history, they can also be very bad. For the most part, a night on the sesh won't result in much more than a couple of days of seemingly interminable sadness, but in 2017, drugs are becoming increasingly risky, especially for inexperienced users. More often than not, that means those about to enter the rolling, drug-rich lands of the British university system.
By now, people should know that Dutch pill makers are knocking out loads of double or triple strength pingers, meaning it's easier to overdose on MDMA than ever before. Or that cannabis is a lot more potent than it used to be. Or that an expanded menu of new psychoactive drugs cooked up in Chinese labs – and a plethora of black market prescription pills – has thrown some extra bear traps at green explorers entering the psychoactive wilds.
But lots of people don't, which is why we run into problems. For many teenagers, going to university can mean ramping up their drug intake or taking illegal drugs for the first time. People aged 16 to 24 are already by far the most prolific drug users in the country, and the evidence shows that people who go to university take more drugs than those who don't.
When it comes to ketamine, for instance, students take more than four times as much as people of the same age who are not at university. Many undergraduates taking ecstasy, cocaine and psychedelic drugs will be doing so for the first time, and will be unfamiliar with buying, dosing and choosing the right setting – a perfect storm of factors that could lead to a very shitty night, or worse, hospitalisations and deaths.
Bearing in mind the dearth of drug education within our school and sixth-form college system, university would appear to be the perfect place to inform students about how to stay safe when using drugs. But it's not happening.
"We noticed that, at university, it was almost weirder to talk about drugs than to take them – people were more worried about being legally safe than staying physically safe."
While freshers can expect to receive harm reduction briefings about sexual abuse, personal safety and inequality, on the dangers of drugs, universities clam up. Having an official "Drug and Alcohol Policy" PDF buried somewhere on the university website, warning students that they will be punished if they are caught with drugs, and advising them on how to spot the signs of addiction, is just not good enough.
It's not as if drug misadventure tragedies among university students are particularly rare. According to Office for National Statistics mortality data, between 2012 and 2015 there were 99 registered accidental drug-related deaths of students aged over 18 in England and Wales – an increase of almost double the rate for previous years.
In January of 2017, Kyle Remzi, a 20-year-old Computer Science student at Essex University, died after taking a risky mix of MDMA, Xanax and alcohol during a night out.
Ashley Hughes had only been at Lincoln University for 13 weeks when he took two super strength ecstasy pills and died at his halls of residence in December of 2014. He was one of three university students who died after taking ecstasy in 2014. Three fellow students who sold Ashley the pills ended up swapping their dorm rooms for prison cells – so students don't just need to be given advice on the dangers of taking drugs, but selling them too.
An online survey of 442 university students in London carried out by the science-based drug information charity Drugs And Me, set up by three students shocked at the lack of honest discussion about drugs, found 40 percent had taken cocaine and ecstasy for the first time at university, and two-thirds had increased their drug intake since starting. Yet, scandalously, 90 percent said they had received no drug harm reduction information since starting university.
"When we came to university in London there was a disparity between the amount of drugs people were taking and the acknowledgement of this fact by the university," says Ivan Ezquerra Romano, a UCL neuroscience student who decided to set up Drugs And Me with two fellow Spanish students – Pablo Lubroth and Gabriel Hirschbaeck – in 2014 after a string of PMA-related ecstasy deaths.
Ivan tells me that, so far, UCL has rebuffed the group's attempts to set up a stall providing harm reduction information at Freshers' Week, and to provide drug testing kits to students, as Newcastle and LSE currently permit.
Why does he think this is happening? "The term 'harm reduction' is still taboo in university culture," he says. "Embracing harm reduction is seen as accepting that students at that particular university have a drug problem." So because universities fear their reputation might be tainted if their efforts to save lives are seen as condoning drug use, they shy away from the kind of honest, direct approach that students probably need.
Unless the advice on safer drug taking is pragmatic and realistic – for example, drug welfare organisation The Loop's "crush, dab, wait", which accepts that people take MDMA and offers a suitable route to reducing harm – then it's not going to have much of an effect. Refusing to acknowledge that the people you want to help use drugs is like talking about contraception while avoiding any mention of actual sex.
In May, Drugs And Me managed to hold an unofficial harm reduction workshop at UCL, which I went along to. The charity's director of development, Rosalind Stone, began by telling students, "We noticed that, at university, it was almost weirder to talk about drugs than to take them – people were more worried about being legally safe than staying physically safe."
Rosalind presented the small gathering of students with some straight up drug harm reduction advice that was more direct than what they were getting through official channels. What was shocking was that, of the 12 students there, two said they had student friends at UCL who had died after taking drugs. None of the students at the workshop – all of whom were in their second or third years – had been given any drug harm reduction advice since arriving at the university.
Although there are a handful of universities, such as Swansea, that do get stuck in with face-to-face drug harm reduction, UCL is certainly not alone in being reticent on the issue.
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Shelly Asquith, Vice President of Welfare at the National Union of Students, tells me that more needs to be done across UK universities. "There is a lack of information from universities because there is a nervousness about them talking about something that's illegal," she says. "They know it happens, but they aren't sure of their role in intervening. They can't tell people that getting into debt with drug dealers is a bad idea, or [to use] certain drugs sparingly, because they think that would be seen as advocating it."
Asquith says that because the universities' hands are seemingly tied, it's a gap that more student unions should be stepping in to fill.
But there are further hurdles yet. I spoke to Ollie McNally of the Newcastle University branch of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which is working with the student union to make drug harm reduction more honest and direct. He admits it's an uphill battle convincing the students themselves, because not all of them want to listen.
"One major hurdle is getting young people to actually care about doing any of this harm reduction stuff," he says. "The fact of the matter is that many people are taking drugs out of peer pressure, to fit in or seem 'cool', and to take safety precautions does not fit that agenda."
It's not only people's mates egging them on that presents a problem; it's also the British passion for getting completely out of it.
"With alcohol, MDMA and pretty much any drug, the UK has a horrific binge culture," says Ollie. "To take the necessary steps to ensure someone is as safe as possible is the antithesis of what many people are looking to achieve with their drug use: to be reckless, irresponsible and rebellious. How many people listen to the very good advice about limiting the number of drinks we have in a session, interspersing alcoholic drinks with water, drinking on a full stomach and using alcohol as infrequently as we can?"
He's got a point. But the same goes with any kind of advice and education; while not everyone will take it on board, some will. Universities are scared to talk about drugs honestly because the UK has such a backward approach to drug policy, so the best we can do in the meantime is to at least give people a chance to know the facts, in the hope that some of it sticks and, perhaps, a few lives are saved.
Drugs And Me is an independent organisation. To help fund the work they do, you can donate here.
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