There is a new task force to tackle student drug use… but what might be overlooked?

Universities UK has established a new taskforce to address student drug consumption, Sunday Blake puts the action in context and assesses which areas will need particular care in order to avoid unintended consequences

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

It is an issue that many welfare officers know to be true – that student drug consumption is frequent and widespread and needs institutional intervention.

Universities UK, Unite Students, GuildHE and Independent HE have established a new taskforce with government departments, sector agencies, NUS, accommodation providers, charities and police, and student advisory panels. Chaired by Nic Beech, vice chancellor of Middlesex University, it will look to reduce the harms in student drug consumption, as well as tackle supply.

This move follows a spree of preventable drug-related student deaths in autumn 2020, reports that student drug use rose during the pandemic, and a rise in students with poor mental health, some of whom report using recreational drugs to manage it.

The task force announced that its approach will be firmly based on evidence-led harm reduction. This is something that students’ unions have been doing for years relatively independently from their parent institutions. However, it may give universities the confidence to face the issue if they have previously been concerned about the reputational risk of harm reduction initiatives, which are often portrayed in the media as actively encouraging drug consumption.

A harm reduction approach acknowledges that drug consumption will occur inevitably, and seeks to provide open and direct information to students on reducing their risk of addiction, overdose, and other harmful consequences.

She’s in the Class A Team

There are a lot of drugs on university campuses and in halls of residences. It is easy to conceal drugs as a student. The admissions of certain politicians suggest that one can go through university life dabbling in Class A drugs and remain consequence-free. So, I’d argue that a student who is caught with drugs is a student who is vulnerable.

Whether they are intoxicated beyond subtly, or their mental state has deteriorated past caring, the chances are that if a student is caught in possession of drugs then they need help. Policy change that recognises, and makes student drug use visible as a health concern, is commendable.

The task force is also looking into the potential damage that possession and consumption of drugs has on students’ future job prospects. Detrimental drug use may hinder someone’s health and therefore ability to seek employment. In policy terms, a lot of institutions currently retain punitive behavioural policies towards drug possession.

But an immediate expulsion from an institution that facilitates life-changing social mobility, as well as providing access to wellbeing support to facilitate their upward trajectory, is unlikely to be the best solution for a vulnerable individual.

It is also a diversity concern. A university lawyer I spoke to recently noted that they see more working-class students in drug-related disciplinaries than other groups. It was almost always for cannabis which, she noted, working-class students are more likely to smoke. It emits a strong odour and so they become more conspicuous than their privileged counterparts, who take cocaine, which is odourless. (Coincidentally, the House of Lords is looking at drug consumption among the middle classes this week).

The task force will need to be aware of how the practicalities of drug regulation play out for different demographics of students.

I’m never leaving my room, I don’t be hitting the clubs

With this in mind, the move towards wellbeing and support will likely have a positive impact. Without the fear of expulsion, not only are students more likely to seek help when they find themselves, or a peer, struggling with drug use, they will also know exactly where to go in an emergency.

There have been student fatalities that could have been prevented had flatmates called for help sooner. The flatmates, panicking about whether they could trust their institution or not, decided not to call for help in the hope that their friend would be okay. Not only can punitive policies result in the tragic death of a student but it can lead to negligence or manslaughter investigations for those around them. Multiple young lives can be ruined at a stroke.

This task force and its aims are particularly pertinent after the last two years. Successive lockdowns saw students socialising in homes, rather than clubs, and so away from any medically trained bar or security staff who may have been able to intervene or call emergency services. The pandemic has shone a light on the hidden consumption that takes place within homes, and the dangers that this poses.

Later this year, Unite and UUK will be publishing research into drug consumption which will presumably look at the frequency of drug consumption within halls of residence. However, it is important that the findings are used to inform policy, and not to surveil potentially vulnerable students.

Who Deals?

The task force is also setting out to better understand the supply of drugs to the UK student population. Although they have not yet disclosed how they intend to do this, they will need to tread very carefully in this area. In Manchester last year a black student said he was accused of being a drug dealer by security staff because he “looked like one.”

This is not to say that students don’t deal drugs. They do. And reports have come in from surveys that a small minority of students turned to “casual” drug dealing when other opportunities for part-time work were closed to them during lockdowns.

The decision the task force will need to make is whether this – a crime which could face from seven years to life in prison – is for the university to act upon or for the police. They will also need to decide what caveats apply: if the student is dealing to other students then does this mean that university can deal with the issue internally?

If the student was dealing to members of the public, is it a wider concern that needs external bodies? And what will different local police forces, that all have slightly different approaches across the four nations, think about blanket national recommendations, particularly if they go against the force’s own approach?

Ultimately, this task force fulfils its mission, then it will provide what many advocates, charities, and students’ unions have called for for a very long time: a non-judgemental approach to education on effects and potential consequences of drug use, combined with information on supporting friends who use drugs alongside meaningful, and evidence-led policy change that could actively change and save lives. This is substantially more beneficial than the threat of disciplinary action.

2 responses to “There is a new task force to tackle student drug use… but what might be overlooked?

  1. The differences between working class and middle class drug consumption habits are unsurprising, with many middle class school children exposed to cocaine use in their homes, something we had quite a lot of data on when I was a school governor. That more cannabis use is detected due to the smell, which lingers on clothing etc is also unsurprising, though it’s use to dampen emotional response to stressors/PTSD should not be, more than a few Academic’s I know use it for similar reasons.

    Unfortunately when it comes to students ‘dealing’ many Universities take a very hands off approach, especially when the dealer is non-white. One Devon University that received reports about the dealing of hard damaging drugs by an individual from a number of concerned students in the same halls residence was more concerned about being accused of being racist than the risk to students health. Only after one hospitalised OD too many and the local Hospital involving the Police, having reported previous OD’s to the University, did they act, by moving the dealing student to a different hall. Then after yet more OD’s and recovered students confirming who had supplied them was the dealer excluded, the same University has also had issues with staff being dealers…

    It will be interesting to see if anything new and/or useful comes from this task force.

  2. Hi Sunday, I can provide some reassurance about the survey. It sits within the overall governance of the project as a whole, which includes a specialist research advisory panel and a student advisory panel. The intention is to administer the survey via a panel service which adheres to a recognised code of ethics, and data will be fully anonymised. The scope will be student drug use in general, not restricted to an accommodation setting.

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