The start of university is the dawn of a new beginning. For most of us, it means all sorts of new experiences: the washing of sinks; the broadening of sexual horizons; the burgeoning comprehension of a lifetime of crippling debt; lots and lots of illegal drugs.
Of course, some of us will have tried drugs before – the solitary half a pill on A-levels results night, or the entirety of sixth form spent smoking weed while we should have been deciphering what Chaucer was really trying to say in paragraph three on page 51 of The Canterbury Tales. That said, the majority of us won't start supplementing our serotonin in earnest until we've finished all those weird ice-breakers lecturers insist on putting you through during freshers week.
Exactly how many of us, though, is hard to say for certain, as official government figures are notoriously weak when it comes to gauging levels of illicit drug use among university students. Fortunately, online student newspaper The Tab recently asked 8,000 students about their drug use, ultimately finding – among a few other things – that 70 percent of university students admitted to taking an illegal drug in their lifetime.
However, more intriguingly, it has revealed a kind of drug-taking A-Z map of British universities.
Top of the usage table is the University of Manchester, where 85 percent of students admitted to dabbling with illegal drugs – about three times the rate for 16-24-year-olds in the general population. The uni also takes top spot when it comes to the number of people who've tried cocaine, MDMA and ketamine.
Leeds University – which outranked Manchester when The Tab did its last drug survey two years ago – came second, with 82 percent of respondents saying they'd tried some kind of illegal drug. The universities of Exeter and Sussex came joint third, with 80 percent each, and, in the battle of Oxbridge, Oxford remains just below average at 69 percent, while Cambridge is near the bottom of the table at 56 percent.
Durham University – or "Dulham", if you're the kind of person to assign derogatory nicknames to universities – has the fewest drug takers of the universities polled. A little over half of its students (55 percent) have ever taken an illegal drug, meaning the other 45 percent presumably either belong firmly to the Stella Squad, refrain for religious or personal reasons, or just really don't like the prospect of getting fucked up.
The druggiest subject was History of Art, followed by Art, Business and English. Apparently Business students have very few lectures, meaning they simply have more time than anyone else to rub non-specific crystals into their gums, and art – well, "expanding your mind" with shit pills is kind of part and parcel of the course. The students least likely to take drugs were those studying Dentistry, with only 45 percent having tried them.
Manchester and Leeds' dominance at the top of the table broadly reflects the official government drug use figures, which show that – London aside – the north west has the highest drug use levels in England and Wales. The two London universities in the survey, UCL and Kings, came mid-table, a result that possibly reflects the higher proportion of overseas students or those still living with their parents.
I asked Professor Fiona Measham, an expert in recreational drug use who has lived and worked in both Manchester and Durham, what makes a university full of drug users.
"Manchester and Leeds are the 24-hour party cities of the north – it's the M62 party corridor," said Measham, adding that she knows of students who drive from one city to the other between parties, from the drum and bass clubs in Manchester to techno and trance clubs in Leeds.
Does Manchester attract drug-using students or does it breed them? "It's a chicken and egg thing," said Measham. "If you're looking for a lively student life, you are going to pick Manchester and its nightlife over Durham's rowing and rugby. Manchester is a cultural vortex. It is the dance capital of the UK. I've asked students why they chose to come to Manchester over other universities, and they have said it's because of the clubbing scene."
Manchester is an easy place to get started if you've never tried drugs before. Measham pointed out that, during freshers week, there are dealers freely handing out business cards. "That's mind-blowing for someone who comes from a small town," she said. "Availability of drugs is not a problem in Manchester – there is easy access to drugs." The same can be said in Leeds, where a student who wanted to remain anonymous told me, "I don't think it took ages for people to find dealers, because the first couple of weeks into term there were people handing out business cards and handing out fliers with deals on them."
If we're looking for the culture that accommodates drug-taking, it's important to note that there's been no real let-up on Manchester's music and club scene since the Madchester days of the early-90s. The Warehouse Project – one of the best known clubs in the country, and one of Manchester's biggest – has a massive student following and sells out 5,000 tickets every weekend during its autumn run. On top of that there's Transmission at Albert Hall in the spring and, in the summer, Parklife, a huge, 80,000-ticket festival in the middle of the city.
Katie, a 20-year-old from the Home Counties, is in the second year of a linguistics degree at the University of Manchester. She had never taken drugs before going to university. So what happened?
"The first drug I took was MDMA powder," she told me. "I freaked out a bit at first because of the rush, but my friend who had done it before sat me down and I loved it. The nightlife here is always about staying up late, until 5AM. It seems bizarre to go out for a late one in Manchester and not take any drugs."
Katie says she's calmed down now and hasn't taken MDMA since January, but adds that her drug-taking never affected her studies.
Meanwhile, Arthur, in his second year at Durham University, says it's no wonder that Durham is bottom of the table.
"There are only a few clubs here – Durham is a small place, and a lot of students' socialising is based around university clubs, like rugby, netball or the wine society," he told me. "They will start drinking in the college bar and move around Durham in large groups, so there's a kind of surveillance going on. It's very high risk to take drugs.
"A lot of people who come to study here are very academic. There are a lot of 9-5 days here, and not so many people can handle dealing with a comedown during four hours in a biochemistry lab."
Despite all this, Arthur reckons Durham may not be bottom for long: "In the last year there have been a few independent dance nights set up, which are getting bigger, and MDMA is getting a lot more talked about."
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Whether or not students went to private school doesn't appear to have too much of an effect on their drug-taking. Of the universities with the highest numbers of former private school pupils, UCL and Bristol were in the top half of The Tab's league table, while the other universities with a high number of private school entrants – Cambridge, Oxford and Durham – occupied the bottom half.
The fact that Manchester's students are the biggest into party drugs wasn't too much of a surprise. What was perhaps even more predictable was Bristol taking top spot for the use of cannabis and nitrous oxide, and the University of Sussex – the nucleus of the UK's poi community – ranking highest for the use of the psychedelics LSD and magic mushrooms.
I asked Kris, who graduated from Sussex University last year, why he thought students there were so into their hallucinogenics.
"Brighton has a liberal scene, and I guess that breeds liberal drug use," he said. "It's probably something to do with the concentration of hippies, ex-hippies and dreadlocked hippie-wannabes coming from private schools in London and being by the sea, [which is] especially relevant for [the] post-trip chill out.
"I remember, coming to Sussex University for the first time, that some degree of drug use is almost a rite of passage. I remember there were these huge forest raves during freshers week, deep in the Sussex Downs, that you could only find by either listening out for them and walking in the right direction, or by knowing the right people – that is, those who take drugs.
"Sussex attracts exploratory and hedonistic kinds of people, but, crucially, I think it's about being near Brighton, where there is a big influence of trippy drugs. You still get a sense of their influence walking around the city: it's colourful, buzzing and slightly disjointed."
It's long been a truism that university is the perfect setting for taking drugs: they're easy to get, you're surrounded by people your own age who also might be experimenting with them, and – more likely than not – you're free from the responsibilities of work or parenthood, meaning you don't have to sit through a 9AM strategy meeting with your jaw still doing loops. All that might also speak to why one drug in particular – ketamine – is more loved by students than their counterparts outside university. Getting anything productive done on K is hard; during university, you're only really obliged to be productive during the essay and exam period.
A study published last year that compared drug use between students and non-students between the ages of 20 and 22 found that students who frequently visited pubs and clubs, who were not religious and who lived away from their parents were far more likely to use drugs than other students. It also revealed that students were over four times more likely than non-students to have consumed ketamine in the last 12 months. However, this is likely to have altered slightly over the last year, because a drought in ketamine has tripled prices in some areas.
So what have we learned? That students take a lot of drugs. And that stereotypes about certain universities – your Manchesters, Bristols and Sussexes – seem to hold true. And, most tellingly, that a bit of drug use during your student years doesn't necessarily mean you're going to fail all your exams. While the University of Manchester may have the most drug-taking students in the UK, it's also ranked – alongside Oxford and Cambridge – as one of the 50 top performing universities in the world.
If you're worried about your drug use – or the drug use of a friend – you can seek advice from Addaction, either through their website or on 020 7251 5860
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