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A UK university will make students sign a contract to not take drugs

The University of Buckingham is the first to have a drug-free policy in the UK

The University of Buckingham will soon be the first institution in the UK where students will sign contract forms promising not to take drugs on campus, as part of its ‘drug-free’ policy.

According to senior staff at the university, students risk expulsion and possible police intervention if they take drugs on college grounds, as the Independent reports.

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law, told Dazed of the concern for this approach. “Rather than reducing the potential harms from drugs, this approach only maximizes the harm that such students will experience,” she says.

The Sunday Times reports that the numbers of students disciplined for drug use has risen by 42 per cent in two years. The majority of sanctions – which included being reported to the police, fines, suspension and expulsion, and behaviour contracts – were doled out by Nottingham and Kingston University, with 283 and 331 cases respectively. Most cases related to cannabis use and possession.

Buckingham’s vice chancellor Sir Anthony Seldon told the Times the incoming policy reflected a “new approach” to tackling drugs and mental health among the student population. “Student lives are needlessly being lost and imperiled,” he said.

Seldon added that they believe universities must “shake themselves up and take more responsibility for students in their care”. 

“Information about the harm that drugs could do should be everywhere – as ubiquitous as the warnings on cigarette packets.” 

The contracts students will be obliged to sign detail that drug taking on university grounds or during “university business” will not be tolerated.

“Our aim is not to be punitive or repressive but to be compassionate and enlightened, helping our students learn how to be fully adult and responsible to themselves and to others. In this, drug-taking has no place,” Seldon said. 

A new report by Release and the National Union of Students offers insight into how universities, colleges, and educational institutions should respond to drug use.

“Zero tolerance approaches simply don’t work,” Release’s executive director Niamh Eastwood told Dazed. “The reality is that students, like many others in society, will use illicit drugs and we know that the best approach is one based on principles of harm reduction, where we provide information and interventions that reduce risk of drug taking. It is no coincidence that the Government’s decision to abandon harm reduction interventions back in 2010, and replace that approach with one focused on eradicating drug use and pushing for abstinence, has coincided with the highest level of drug-related deaths on record across all substances.”

“To ensure young people are protected we must provide them advice on how to use safely and also implement drug testing facilities, such as those provide by the Loop,” she added. The Loop is a UK-based organisation which brought in drug-testing at UK festivals last year, to widespread success and praise. 

“Moreover, disciplining young people for drug use and reporting them to the police can have dire consequences on their long term opportunities. Many report that they have been excluded from university and have no prospect of pursuing the career they had chosen – this is simply not a proportionate response and can actually push young people away from seeking support when they need it,” Eastwood said.

The report highlights how punitive approaches do not work – examples of sniffer dogs to detect drugs, security and police searches, and drug swab tests were largely criticised for inconsistency and how invasive and intimidating they are, affecting the mental health of already marginalized groups. 1 in 10 people who used drugs reported being searched on campus. Instead, the groups call for more supportive, considered approaches to drugs. 

The report also found confusion among universities with regards to the law surrounding drugs. 16 per cent of UK universities incorrectly advise students that using drugs is a criminal offense, leading to some students being disproportionately disciplined. The study says it’s possible some of these institutions may deliberately adopt a harsher, more paternalistic approach and punish students outside of British criminal law.

Overall the report concludes that a consistent approach to drug use must be taken by universities and students unions. Appropriate support, like harm reduction advice and information, should be freely available to students, while surveillance measures that are invasive and unreliable should not be used. Mental health services should also be fully equipped to help students, while disciplinary procedures should be fair and proportionate.

Read more on the report here, and more about what Release and the Loop do for drug policy and awareness.