Only three in 10 students would be confident to share information regarding their drug use without fear of punishment
Zero-tolerance drug policies at universities can do more harm than good and discourage troubled students from seeking help, a report by a UK thinktank has concluded.
The report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) highlights surveys that suggest just three in 10 students would be confident to disclose information regarding their drug use, or abuse, to their institution without fear of punishment. Meanwhile, 16% of students surveyed who use illegal drugs reported having scary experiences but did not go to hospital or seek help.
“Drug-related deaths, which occur every year within universities, are largely preventable if the right policies and practices are in place,” the report says. “If zero tolerance means fewer people coming forward for help, and potentially life-saving information is not communicated to those unwilling or unable to cease illicit drug taking, then for us that is a matter of concern.”
It says that helping students could include informing them about how to use drugs more safely, “however uncomfortable this may sound”, while also providing them with educational materials on how to reduce or stop their use of illegal drugs.
John de Pury, the assistant director of policy at Universities UK, welcomed the report and “the clarity in which its authors put health outcomes first”.
Universities UK this month announced a new taskforce, chaired by the vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, Prof Nic Beech, “to help universities understand and address drug use” among students.
This academic year, at Bristol University, students are being provided with advice and support, including harm reduction sessions with a drugs worker on how to reduce the risks of using party drugs through testing kits, not mixing drugs with alcohol, and starting with low doses. “We understand that a zero-tolerance stance is harmful and damaging as it prevents students reaching out as they may fear being punished,” the university’s drug policy statement says.
De Pury added: “Universities need a different conversation about drugs. We need to listen to students to understand and address harms and risks. Above all, we need an open and evidenced approach that has at its heart the safety and health of our university communities.”
Mike Barton, former chief constable of Durham police, said: “The use of ‘zero tolerance’ is mystifying both in its prevalence and its futility. It results in a cruel lottery in terms of its impact on individual students and creates and fosters a wider encouragement of unsafe environments for those engaged in already risky practices.”
Arda Ozcubukcu, the co-founding director at harm reduction social enterprise NeuroSight, and report co-author, said: “If students aren’t asking for help in a life-threatening situation because they worry about punishment, then that’s a serious problem. We all want students to be safe. Harm reduction-based approaches can literally save lives.”
In October 2019, student Daniel Mervis, 23, died of an overdose after struggling with addiction. Mervis was a student at University College London but previously attended Oxford’s St John’s College where his struggles with dependency began. In her report last year, the coroner, Prof Fiona Wilcox, criticised St John’s College’s approach to drugs, saying its policy which threatened “to deal with [students who use drugs with] utmost severity” might discourage “students to seek help for their addiction out of fear of the consequences, either legal or disciplinary”.
She added: “Support by the college may assist students … to access appropriate care, perhaps early on in their addiction and thus help prevent deaths.”
A spokesperson from St John’s College said: “Following the coroner’s report after the tragic death of Daniel Mervis, St John’s College has updated its student handbook to make clear that we offer confidential advice to students to support with issues of addiction and use of illegal substances. We did this in consultation with [Daniel Mervis’s father] Mr Mervis to ensure we had fully reflected his concerns and removed any perceived barriers for those needing help and support.”
The Hepi report highlights further survey data suggesting half of students would feel confident their university would deal with their drug use appropriately if they required support. “We need students to come forward if they have problems, whether in relation to drugs or as survivors of sexual violence,” it says.