University Drugs Policy

Yesterday, HEPI, a leading think tank in higher education, released a landmark report calling on universities to abandon the failed zero tolerance approach to drug use. This is a significant move by a respected think-tank and comes at a critical juncture. 

This is a welcome intervention from an independent source, with the drug death crisis at an all time high and showing no signs that it will be slowing down.

For many students and alumni, hedonism and university are synonymous. Many look back fondly on their substance-free student years. However, whilst excessive alcohol consumption in university is deemed commonplace, trivial, and accepted – it is still dangerous. 

Student Unions – bodies tasked with safeguarding students – regularly ply young people with booze at specially discounted rates, with no legal consequences for over-indulgence. Spiking has become so prominent in the news that it is not surprising that this is the most popular way to spike in potentially vulnerable situations.


MDU logo

MDU welcomes you to secure spaces


MDU logo

MDU initiative sees foundation doctor members raise over £30,000 for the Royal Medical Benevolent Fund and the Doctors’ Support Network

Students who choose to take illicit drugs are likely to have a different experience in terms of safety, tolerance, and legal drugs. There have long been tales of sniffer dogs being marched around halls of residence to “tackle” the drugs crisis. Some universities have police patrolling the halls and invading the private space of first-time out-of–homers. This is done at the behest of the Home Secretary under the guise of being “tough on drugs” but it remains to be proven that this approach has any impact on the availability of drugs whatsoever.

Meanwhile, alcohol is dished out at official uni events, shared with superiors in a casual manner whilst discussing critical theory or marketed in a blatant ‘get drunk quick’ deal at student bars – universities still somehow hold face whilst championing a zero tolerance approach.

Institutions that are responsible for ensuring students leave home for the very first time should be held accountable. This can have dire, sometimes fatal, consequences. We can’t celebrate excessive alcohol culture while demonizing drug abuse.

While this is not meant to encourage drug use, the current strategy employed by most universities is deeply flawed and students suffer the worst of consequences. A “bad batch” of ketamine took the lives of a number of Newcastle uni students not long ago, and testimony from the Anyone’s Child campaign group paints painful imagery of vulnerable young students falling victim to the perils of prohibition – leaving let down and broken loved ones.

Two-pronged university messaging is used to address psychoactive substances. Legal substances can be misused and celebrated. Illicit substances can lead to expulsion or prison, or even death.

A student interviewed for this piece – who wished to remain anonymous – spoke to in painful detail about the dangers of a supposed “zero tolerance” approach. She witnessed her peer slip into a cycle that led to him suffering from drug addiction, and ultimately, his tragic death at the young age of 19.

In their first week at university, police raided their halls – finding no illicit substances. This experience was clearly distressing for the student. This young man was not provided with any support for addictions or mental health at university and was found unresponsive shortly afterwards. “Death by misadventure”.

In a deeply emotional conversation, the aforementioned young person’s friend harrowingly recounts the experience. “I witnessed both the criminal justice system and university consequences of an ‘unsuccessful’ raid take their toll. My friend was failed by the university, left to die with only their newly acquainted friends to pick up the pieces.”

The brave interviewee, visibly shaken, is allowed to take a moment to process the traumatic event she witnessed in her halls at 20. It is likely that her peers downstairs are drinking alcohol without a care in this world. 

University should not encourage binge-drinking, but it must also be supportive of those who use illegal drugs to self-medicate. Educational institutions have a responsibility to protect their students from the harms of substance abuse – whether this be alcohol or illicit drugs.

Where most are unwilling to embrace a harm reduction-based model, Bristol University has teamed up with the local drug providers – Bristol Drugs Project – to offer professional advice, drug testing kits and support to students experimenting with substances.

This multi-partner agency agreement model should be explored at other universities in the UK. Students are often left in silence by zero tolerance messaging and should have access to support for any type of addiction.

Megan Jones, a Director of Cranstoun’s social justice charity, emphasizes the importance of third-sector organizations working with universities to find solutions to protect students from the dangers of drug-taking. Cranstoun runs the DIVERT programme “demonstrating that a harm reduction approach gives young people the tools to make informed decisions about drug use.” 

The HEPI report found that a shocking 16% of students surveyed who use drugs had had “scary experiences” on substances, but “did not seek help or call an ambulance” for fear of the criminal consequences. This doesn’t happen with alcohol, authorities are aware of the dangers and prepare adequately. 

Students suffering with problematic use of illicit substances should have access to services without fear of recourse – if they need or want  help. As Jones says, “this isn’t about pulling students into drug and alcohol services if unnecessary. It’s about the right intervention at the right time for an individual.”