Reducing drugs harm in HE: an uphill task?

Four months after it was announced, the taskforce formed to tackle the issues surrounding drug use in universities is still at the mapping stage. Julian Owen explores what terrain it will need to cover and how it might succeed

The establishment of a task force to help ameliorate the damaging use of drugs in UK universities is a timely one. While the majority might reasonably cry “not all students!” at the time-honoured stereotype of perma-stoned young folk subsisting on a diet of late-night garage snacks, the figures on illegal substance consumption offer slightly more substantial food for thought.

In a 2018 NUS survey of almost 3,000 students, more than half (56%) said they had used drugs, with well over a third (39%) continuing to do so. And while for most people the short-term high is statistically unlikely to lead to longer-term dependence – or worse – for a significant percentage of students there is a shift from delight to deleteriousness.

Moreover, while it is too early to attribute cause and effect, there is mounting evidence – both analytical and anecdotal – that drug use among students has risen since the onset of Covid-19. In December 2020, when The Tab youth media site surveyed more than 16,000 people in higher education, one in three said that they had been taking drugs more often since the pandemic started.

Deputy chief constable Jason Harwin, drugs lead for the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), recognises the trend.

“The numbers are increasing,” he told UB. “The challenge is that a lot of those individuals taking drugs infrequently won’t be engaged in treatment services because they won’t have a dependency at the moment; that may change longer term.”

Thus, part of the impetus behind February’s announcement of a higher education drugs task force, to be led by Universities UK (UUK) in partnership with GuildHE, Independent HE and Unite Students.

On 14 April, UUK told us that, while initial project meetings have been held, the taskforce’s terms of reference are still to be fully agreed and the complete programme of work is yet to be mapped out. “The literature review and research base will all take some time,” they added.

Jason Harwin is deputy chief constable at Lincolnshire Police and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for drugs.


Nevertheless, the primary goals of the initiative are clear.

“The launch of this work signals our firm intention to develop a proactive approach with student safety and health at its heart, to help universities understand and address drug use,” said the chair of the taskforce, Professor Nic Beech, in February.

Drug use, he added, “is still largely an unspoken issue across UK universities”.

This, of course, is key; it is manifestly easier to perceive the intricacies of a challenge bathed in light than one lurking in the shadows. It is also an area where the sector has plenty of room to up its game, according to Harwin.

“I’m not saying that the universities are not trying to encourage reporting,” he said, “but I think there’s a lot of concern from students about the impact getting caught with drugs would have on them in terms of their education and, in the longer term, job opportunities.”

Harwin’s view is borne out by a 2021 survey of students for education charity SOS-UK, which found that only 40% of those taking drugs were confident that if they turned to their university for support with drug use, the matter would be dealt with appropriately.

“The challenge is that a lot of those individuals taking drugs infrequently won’t be engaged in treatment services because they won’t have a dependency at the moment; that may change longer term” – Jason Harwin, NPCC

That poll prefigured a March 2022 report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), which found that a zero-tolerance approach to illicit drug use may cause more harm than it prevents. Illicit drug use in universities: zero tolerance or harm reduction? recommends that universities prioritise averting drug harms over preventing drug use – at least in the short term – in cases where students are unwilling or unable to quit using illicit drugs.

In other words, even if most institutions haven’t wielded an anti-drugs stick with quite the same zeal as Buckingham University (sniffer dogs on campus, contracts not to take drugs on university property), there is a case for the carrot to be given a higher profile.

Drug intake should be framed more as a health consideration than a criminal justice matter, says the Hepi report, with users given the confidence to come forward by the issue’s integration into broader institutional narratives, such as mental health and wellbeing.

The attitudinal shift should be augmented by providing non-judgmental information on drugs – and the support available – via campaigns, workshops, talks and online materials.

“If students aren’t asking for help in a life-threatening situation because they worry about punishment, then that’s a big problem,” said co-author of the report, Arda Ozcubukcu. “Harm reduction-based approaches can literally save lives. Tolerating drug use might feel uncomfortable but what matters is the outcomes.
This is a complex problem which cannot be reduced to the presence or absence of drug use. Universities have the opportunity to bring the nuance needed to address this problem and set an example to other institutions.”

The Hepi report also noted that the perception of drug-related matters by decision-makers was at times removed from the reality of the situation on the street. Or, indeed, campus.

Prof Beech, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said drug use “is still largely an unspoken issue across UK universities”.


On a related note, part of the taskforce’s mandate will be to better understand issues around supply. At the beginning of the academic year, Harwin warned that organised crime gangs were specifically targeting new students.

“Some of it is inside, students supplying other students,” he explained to us. Part of that stems from the return of the night-time economy, “where students are finally able to get out and about and do the things that most students do when university is operating outside Covid-19.

“Online access and availability is also a real issue,” he added. Indeed, a significant amount of the drug trade has gone virtual, with a 2019 survey by Royal Holloway finding Snapchat to be the app of choice among fresher-aged buyers.

Rather than having to surreptitiously catch the eye of a man moving through a crowd quietly intoning “Black ’ash… trips… Es…”, today’s buyers can simply await delivery of an anonymous package, bought with a click or two after a quick check of customer reviews.

The police are “working really closely” with social media providers on initiatives such as flagging potential problems through artificial intelligence, Harwin told us, before revealing his hopes for the online safety bill currently making its way through parliament.

“That provides an opportunity to increase responsibility on the platform providers to ultimately be proactive, not just reactive to reports of dealing. If the students are seeing it, we need them to report it as well, but we don’t get many. It’s not only about their own problem, but being aware of other individuals that could be having a problem and being able to report it in confidence.”

How could that be encouraged?

“You don’t have to come through the police, you can report in confidence through Crimestoppers, or go through the university itself. That’s what some universities are looking at – can they have a confidential reporting mechanism for their students? We are also looking at why they’re not going straight to the social media provider to say, ‘Be aware of this dubious content’.”

Harwin is clear that “we’ve got to recognise that people take drugs for different reasons”. It might come from seeking new experiences, attempting to block out personal issues, as a handy aid for social confidence, or just plain enjoyment.

“Tolerating drug use might feel uncomfortable but what matters is the outcomes. This is a complex problem which cannot be reduced to the presence or absence of drug use” – Arda Ozcubukcu

New students, heading out into the world on their own for perhaps the first time, are particularly susceptible to some of these prompts. The impetus for taking drugs – and potential subsequent problems – were both highlighted in the SOS-UK survey. Forty-one per cent of respondents who had used drugs said that it had helped them make new friends, with 17% acknowledging it had led to missed university class commitments and 15% admitting that it had resulted in them taking risks with personal safety.

“Young people may not have taken drugs before, but they explore them and we see drug-related overdoses and people dying,” said Harwin.

“No drug is safe, because you don’t actually know what you’re taking unless it’s prescribed.”

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that, in the population as a whole, drug-related deaths are on the rise. In 2020, 4,561 deaths related to drug poisoning were registered in England and Wales, a 3.8% rise from the previous year.

A number of student deaths form part of that grim total, among them three university students in the north-east of England who died after taking ketamine or MDMA In October 2020. A month later, a law student at Cardiff University sustained a fatal brain injury after taking ketamine and drinking heavily.

Whatever the eventual terms of reference and programme of action, the drugs-use taskforce is facing a considerable challenge. What do you think would constitute success, DDC Harwin?

“Three things: seeing less drug-related deaths in the establishments; more reporting – and more self-reporting – to get help; and seeing less use.”

And how do you rate the chances?

“We will see some success, but it’s going to take time. It’s not about just a universal response, but ensuring we’re responsive to individual needs. We’ve got to sustain that effort and give it time to embed. That’s why it’s a 10-year ambition.”

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