Pin It
some white powder on a mirror
via Piqsels

Zero-tolerance drug policies at UK universities don’t work

This may shock you

Olivia can vividly remember the first time she took MDMA.

It was at a rave in her first year at Swansea University. She was two-stepping to drum and bass in a crowded, sweaty room, butterflies racing round her stomach, waiting for something to happen. It felt like inching up a mounting rollercoaster. Then came the come-up, simultaneously slow and sudden, with the first pangs of stomach-churning excitement followed by body-wracking waves of euphoria. It was life-changing. “I think since that first time, I was just chasing that experience,” Olivia, now 24, tells me. “I feel a little bit guilty saying it felt great, but yeah, the first time was memorable.”

Olivia’s experience of taking MDMA for the first time isn’t unusual. Regardless of whether you think it’s right or wrong, it’s an indisputable fact that some university students will dabble in drug use. A 2018 study from the National Union of Students estimated that about two in five students are drug users, while a 2020 survey of over 16,000 students conducted by The Tab found that over 12 per cent of students use cocaine. 

While Olivia’s experience of using MDMA for the first time was pretty typical, she quickly became a more habitual drug user. She began using coke and ketamine and spending increasingly more money on event tickets and drugs. “I would go out and take something every week. At that time, I didn‘t realise how dangerous that was and how much damage that was actually causing,” she recalls.

“I have a distinct memory of going out on a Monday night to a club with cheap drinks and one pound entry, and I took drugs. No one else did,” she says. “I think that was really when things were starting to get bad – when I was starting to do it outside of bigger events.”

22-year-old Luke* also struggled with substance abuse when he was an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh. “At the end of first year I got in with the wrong people,” he recalls. “They were doing cocaine on a regular basis. And MDMA, ecstasy, acid, shrooms, basically any drug under the sun. I kind of fell into that lifestyle and it got to the point where I couldn’t go on a night out without buying a bag of coke.” Luke explains that as he went out so often, he would sometimes spend £500 a week on drugs. Without coke, he would feel “angsty, anxious, and angry.”

A report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) published last week found that zero-tolerance drug policies at universities can do more harm than good and discourage troubled students from seeking help. The report references surveys that suggest only three in 10 students would be happy to disclose information regarding their drug use or abuse to their university without fear of punishment. A recent investigation by The Tab also found that between 2016 and 2021, universities collected £350,000 worth of drug fines. Furthermore, 16 per cent of students surveyed who use illegal drugs reported having scary experiences but did not seek help. 

Olivia and Luke both take accountability for their actions – but also feel their respective universities could have done more to help. It really started to affect my studies but I couldn’t get myself out of that cycle,” Luke says. “But the uni didn’t do anything.”

Olivia had a similar experience. “I can’t say what the university could have done if they knew or how they would have helped,” she says. “But I’m not particularly optimistic because the help that I received for my other issues like my mental health wasn’t the greatest. I didn’t feel looked after or cared for. I felt quite let down by the university.” 

“My mental health wasn’t the greatest. I didn’t feel looked after or cared for... I’m honestly quite surprised that I’m still alive” – Olivia, 24

Adam Waugh is a senior team member of The Loop, a non-profit which promotes harm reduction. “A student who is struggling with their drug use may benefit from counselling, mental health treatment, some time off their studies or support from their local drugs service,” he says. “One of the main downsides of a zero tolerance policy is that it may put people off from seeking support.”

“If a student is struggling with their drug use, it is important that they get support as quickly as possible, otherwise their problems may quickly build,” he continues. “Zero tolerance approaches can lead to students being scared their drug use will be treated as a disciplinary matter, which puts them off seeking help.”

This lack of guidance and support can have extreme and fatal consequences. In February 2020, Anas Tarabain, a University of Exeter student, died in halls after taking heroin. In November 2020, Megan Pillott, a Cardiff University student, died after taking ketamine. Tragically, in October 2020, there were two drug-related deaths at Newcastle University and one at Northumbria University.

I’m honestly quite surprised that I’m still alive,” Olivia tells Dazed, recalling ingesting dangerous amounts of MDMA while taking SSRIs, leaving her susceptible to serotonin syndrome – which can be fatal. “I know of people who have died as a result of taking drugs. It’s kind of scary to think about that. Maybe that could have been me.”

Waugh suggests that universities should consider drug checking and offering The Loop’s new harm reduction module, which teaches the risks associated with different drugs and how these risks can be reduced as well as responding to a drug related emergency. Thankfully, as highlighted by Hepi, some universities and students’ unions are already shifting towards harm reduction policies. As the report says, it’s vital that universities take “a public health based approach, rather than a fundamentally criminal justice based one.”