From Canada’s legalisation of cannabis on the night of 18th October to the ongoing international medicinal marijuana debate, drug policy is recurringly in the public eye. British government officials are being increasingly lobbied to address the drugs dilemma by interested parties representing both ends of the debate’s spectrum. Recent statements from the National Union of Students (NUS) show that such discussions are now being increasingly held at universities across the country, resulting in a sharp rise in the number of students’ unions actively considering the introduction of accessible drug-testing kits on campus.
Eva Crossan Jory, NUS Vice-President for Welfare, explained in discussion with The Independent that “more and more unions are asking about drug-testing kits”, which she cites as being caused by a change in attitude towards drug policy. Ms Crossan Jory identified that the focus is increasingly on harm reduction and education, with the matter now being taken “more seriously” by many students’ unions. Many have pointed towards Hampshire’s Munity festival this summer as evidence of the necessity of such services following two festival-goers dying and thirteen others being taken to hospital due to drug-related caused.
This attitudinal shift is something that has been echoed within Newcastle University Students’ Union (NUSU); when asked about its drug policy, Welfare and Equality Officer Jack Green commended the “large strides” made by the University in recent years. Mr Green illustrated this by referencing the Accommodation Team’s movement away from a traditional zero tolerance policy to a more open and impartial environment in which it “educate[s] students and support[s] them instead”.
As part of their stance towards drugs and focus on harm reduction, many students’ unions, including Manchester and Sussex, already offer drug-testing kits which allow students to establish their toxicity prior to use. The rise in demand of such kits has led NUS to seriously consider the feasibility of sending them to students’ unions in bulk in a move which Ms Crossan Jory describes as making the kits “cheaper and more accessible”.
Currently the only NUSU-facilitated way for students to access drug-testing kits is through the society Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). The NUSU-based chapter of the transnational non-profit education organisation is committed to “reducing the harm caused by drugs to the user and to society”. In conversation with the Courier, SSDP President Ashleigh McLean described an integral part of meeting this aim as being encompassed in the society’s efforts to “provide low-cost drug-testing kits to those who need them”. At the society’s fortnightly discussion nights, members are able to purchase kits from committee members, which the society buys from a wholesaler so that members can purchase kits at the lowest possible price to make them accessible to as many students as possible. SSDP has however got ambitious plans for the future; Ms McLean described how the society hopes to hold a weekly stall in the students’ union where they can sell kits to students. Mr Green of NUSU explained how a similar scheme was trialled several years ago, in which the kits were distributed alongside factual information in the students’ union building for a voluntary donation; the voluntary nature of this, however, led to the scheme’s collapse.
Despite an NUS survey in April revealing that 56% of university students nationally have tried drugs at least once, some universities continue to oppose a reversal of their zero tolerance policy. This includes the University of Buckingham, whose Vice-Chancellor Sir Anthony Seldon attracted widespread media attention in April of this year with the announcement of his reactionary policy. In a movement criticised by many as extreme and even “infantilising” students, he endeavoured to create the UK’s first drug-free campus by requesting students to sign a contract agreeing to refrain from substance abuse on campus, arguing that by ignoring the issue, other higher education officials were simply “colluding in the mass consumption” of illegal substances.
When asked about the popularity of punitive zero tolerance policies at universities, Ms McLean of SSDP suggested that “drug policy is controversial and highly debated because the stakes are high; a mistake can be devastating”. She however explained the conflicting nature of drug policy at many higher education institutions, describing how “some places say that they are opposed to distributing drug-testing kits through fear that it might normalise drug taking, yet alcohol is a very dangerous drug, as is nicotine, and sold by lots of places, and alcohol is even promoted and advertised”.
Rob Noon, LGBT+ Officer at NUS, was similarly critical of the prevalence of zero tolerance policies, stating that “With [NUS] research showing so many students use drugs to deal with poor mental health and stress, it is highly unlikely that punishing them heavily and attempting to create a ‘drug free university’ is going to deal with these issues. In fact, it is likely to exacerbate them.”
Despite emphasising the importance of harm reduction, Mr Green of NUSU concluded that “prevention is always better than trying to treat the consequences”. Ultimately, however, he stressed that “as a Union we are here to support students, and I believe that includes allowing them to make their own choices if provided with the factual information that they need to do so”.
For students who are interested in increasing drug education across campus, SSDP is holding a series of fortnightly meetings called “Say Know Discussions: [Drug Name]”. These sessions consist of members meeting in a relaxed and friendly environment to openly discuss the particular drug in question, covering topics including the chemistry, variations and reactions of the drug, the law, the history of the drug, and any personal experiences. Ms McLean describes the talks as being “non-judgmental and hopefully very informative”. The society is additionally hosting a laughter yoga session on December 5th as part of their efforts to “promote possible mind-altering activities without using any drugs”.
Further information about this topic can be found on many websites, including tripsit.me, erowid.org, drugsand.me, talktofrank.com and release.org.uk. The SSDP Newcastle chapter can be reached by searching for them on Facebook or contacting them through the NUSU website. Within the University, support is available through both the students’ union by contacting the Student Advice Centre, and through King’s Gate by contacting the Student Health & Wellbeing Service.
Last modified: 8th July 2019