Universities should focus more on supporting rather than punishing students found to be using drugs, according to a report published by the NUS and Release, a drug information charity.
The wide-reaching report used freedom of information requests to UK universities along with the responses of 2,810 students from across the UK to build a picture of student drug use.
Just over half of the student respondents reported having used illegal or controlled drugs at some point, with around 16% using them regularly.
One of the contributors to the report was Zoe Carre, a policy researcher at Release and former Newcastle student. In 2014 Carre established the Newcastle chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an international movement advocating for universities to adopt a more welfare-based approach to drug use.
Carre said: “The reality is that students, like many others in society, will use illicit drugs. Students need to be provided with vital harm reduction information, so that they can make more informed choices about drugs and be as safe as possible.
"Disciplining students for drug use and reporting them to the police can have long-lasting negative effects on their lives. 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.”
As well as looking at student drug use, the report investigated the responses of universities. The report found that many institutions adopted punitive measures even when students were not breaking the law, warning that this may discourage students from seeking help or advice relating to drugs.[pullquote]The report found at least 21 students were permanently excluded from their institutions in the 2016/17 academic year for possessing drugs[/pullquote]
The overwhelming majority of drug use reported in the survey took place outside of clubs or bars, with 86% of students who used drugs doing so at home or in student accommodation.
Three years ago, in response to a campaign by SSDP Newcastle, the University relaxed its zero tolerance policy to illegal drug use in student accommodation.
Rather than an instant eviction from halls, students found in possession of drugs will now receive a suspended eviction, meaning they are able to remain living in halls as long as they accept advice given by the University and “refrain from any further substance misuse.”
At the time, a Courier survey found that 40% of Newcastle students were unaware of the University’s policy on drug use.
In light of this most recent report, Carre said: “While Newcastle University should be commended for moving away from a zero tolerance approach to drugs a few years ago, there is still more that could be done to improve the institution’s response to student drug use on campus.
"In particular, we would advise against the use of sniffer dogs to detect drugs on campus, permanently excluding students for simple possession, and disciplining students for behaviours that are not a criminal offence (e.g. using drugs or possessing a psychoactive substance).”
Sarah Craggs, Welfare and Equality Officer at Newcastle University Students' Union, said: “At Newcastle, cases are taken on an individual basis: for example, if a student is caught with drugs they are not automatically expelled or removed from their accommodation.”
The NUS report found that students are in general quite relaxed about drug use among their peers, and a majority felt that their institutions should do less to punish student drug users. The report found at least 21 students were permanently excluded from their institutions in the 2016/17 academic year for possessing drugs.
The report also challenges the traditional idea that drug use is necessarily a problem. Two thirds of the student drug users surveyed believed drug use improved their mental health, and almost a third felt that drugs enabled them to attend lectures they would not otherwise have been able to go to. Using drugs to self-medicate for mental health problems was particularly high among LGBT+ and non-binary students.
A Newcastle University spokesperson said: “Newcastle University has a zero tolerance approach to all forms of drug misuse. We work with the Students’ Union to educate and support our students to understand the risks around drug misuse of any kind.
“Students found to be using, possessing or distributing drugs, or other illegal substances, are subject to robust disciplinary procedures.”
The Students' Union works to support students and provide them with advice on drug use. Craggs continued: “At NUSU in particular, we run a lot of harm reduction strategies and have had various conversations with the chief constable of Northumbria Police about the messages we send out to students for support.
“We keep up to date with drug trends too, and what students need to look out for. Of course, it is like with drinking, you can tell a student not to take drugs, but we know that some students still will. So it is about harm reduction and educating students on safety, as well as making them aware of the consequences.”
A tenth of respondents to the survey had used study drugs at one point, and only 5% cited improving their academic performance as their motivation to take drugs, suggesting that media hype around study drugs is overstated.