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We did some research into student drug use. Here's what we found

Thursday 26-04-2018 - 00:01

Earlier this year, we undertook a study looking into student drug use. Today we launch our findings.   


Read our report on student drug use.

This February, NUS Trans Campaign and NUS Welfare Zone launched a study into student drug use. The study was in two parts; a UK-wide survey into the attitudes, environments, and impacts of student drug use conducted by NUS, and a policy analysis which assessed education institutions’ drug policies and how they are applied, conducted by Release. Despite the stereotype of students as hedonistic drug users, this study was the first comprehensive UK-wide piece of research into student drug use. It is an honour to announce the launch of Taking the hit: student drug use and how institutions respond, the report which aims to disseminate the findings from this important piece of research.

The study was conducted because we are tired of seeing our peers being given sub-standard health advice around drugs on campus, we are concerned at institutions’ disciplinary policies that seemed more focused on punishment than support, and we are devastated at the handful of drug-related deaths and injuries that have happened on campuses and in our communities. It is clear that students deserve better.  

The survey findings paint a complex picture of student drug use where two-thirds of students who use drugs report that drug use has improved their mental health, and one third reporting a worsening of mental health conditions. Sixty-six per cent of students who use drugs report that they have missed a lecture as a result of their drug use, but 29 per cent said that they had been able to attend a class they otherwise wouldn’t have as a result of their drug use. What is clear is that student drug use has a mix of positive and negative impacts on students’ lives, and treating drug use wholly as a problem to be solved by punishment doesn’t reflect the reality of students’ experiences.

Survey respondents were also most likely to disagree with the statement “My university/college’s drugs policy does not do enough to punish students who take drugs” (50 per cent disagreed with this) and “I would feel confident in disclosing information about my drug use to my college without fear of punishment” (44 per cent disagreed this would be the case). This highlights that students would prefer that their institution adopts a less punitive approach to student drug use and that punitive approaches may act as a barrier to students seeking support around drug use.

The policy analysis reported that there is a wide range of approaches by which institutions respond to student drug use. There have been deeply concerning instances of institutions operating and reserving the right to implement invasive and unreliable measures of surveillance such as drugs swabs and the use of sniffer dogs, which seem open to abuses such as racial and queer-phobic profiling. Fifty-six per cent of institutions can discipline students for behaviours that do not constitute a criminal offense, and a significant minority of institutions (16 per cent) incorrectly advise their students that drug use, in itself, is against the law.

Despite these areas of significant concern, there are some institutions whose approach to drug use constitute good practice. This includes a wide range of actions such as dissemination of harm reduction information, the avoidance of unnecessary criminalisation where possible, and reasonable and appropriate engagements with fitness to practice schemes which recognise the difference between problematic and non-problematic drug use.

We are incredibly proud to have led on the first comprehensive study of student drug use and policy responses. The report gives clear recommendations that institutions and students’ unions should adopt, based on best practice from institutions in the sector and the advice of experts from Release. But our work on student drug use and harm reduction does not end here. We have an upcoming report which discusses in greater detail the experiences of trans students who use drugs, which will be the first UK-wide study focussing on trans people’s drug use. We hope that both reports will start important conversations, campaigns, and action leading to a safer and more supportive world for students who use drugs, and look forward to working with students who use drugs to create this world.

In solidarity,

Jess Bradley and Izzy Lenga
NUS Trans Officer and NUS VP Welfare

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Features, Trans, Welfare

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