'Archaic and harmful': report condemns strict handling of student drug takers

Sally Weale Education correspondent
Ecstasy tablets. FoI requests to 151 institutions found that in 2016-17 there were at least 2,067 recorded incidents of student misconduct for possession of drugs Photograph: portokalis/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Universities are being urged not to tell the police about students caught in possession of drugs, amid fears that an overly punitive approach stops vulnerable young people from seeking help.

The recommendation is made in a study by the National Union of Students in collaboration with the drugs information charity Release. The study looks at drug use among students and how higher education institutions deal with drugs incidents.

The report, published on Thursday, expresses concern about an “archaic and harmful” approach towards drug use at some institutions. Freedom of information requests to 151 institutions found that in 2016-17 there were at least 2,067 recorded incidents of student misconduct for possession of drugs.

While many were resolved with a formal warning or fine, at least one in four incidents (531) were reported to the police, and 21 students were permanently excluded from their studies for drug possession.

Zoe Carre, policy researcher at Release, said: “We are deeply concerned about the punitive approach taken towards student drug use in some institutions and the appropriateness of support that is offered around drugs in most cases.

“The fact that at least 21 students were permanently excluded from their studies for simply possessing a drug, and one in four students caught with drugs for their own personal use were reported to the police, is archaic and harmful. This type of approach prevents people from seeking support if they need it.

“The reality is that students take drugs and educational institutions must have policies and procedures in place that protect the student population. This can only be done by providing vital harm-reduction information, so that they can make more informed choices and be as safe as possible.

“We are witnessing record high deaths involving cocaine and MDMA/ecstasy, and it is incumbent on institutions to take steps to protect the health and wellbeing of students who use drugs.”

Half of respondents who are drug users say they use cannabis at least once a month

The study surveyed almost 3,000 UK-based students and, though not claiming to be a prevalence study, found that drug use was common though infrequent. Almost six of 10 respondents (56%) reported having used drugs at some point, while four in 10 (39%) said they were currently using substances. Most said they used drugs occasionally (23%), rather than regularly (10%), or on most days (6%).

Cannabis was the most popular drug, having been used by 94% of respondents who said that they had taken drugs. Ecstasy/MDMA was the second most commonly used drug, taken by two-thirds (67%) of respondents who have used drugs, while nitrous oxide and cocaine have both been used by just over half of this group.

One in 10 of all students who took part in the survey said they had taken “study drugs” to improve focus and motivation. That figure went up to one in five of the group who said they had taken drugs, while a small percentage (6%) said they used study drugs at least once a month.

One-fifth of drug-using respondents use them to self-medicate an existing mental health problem

The report points to the complex reasons for drug use, among them mental health issues. Almost a third of respondents (31%) who had used drugs said they had done so to deal with stress; 22% were self medicating for an existing mental health problem.

The study also suggests there is confusion within universities about drugs and the law. “We found that at least 56% (82) of UK universities define drug-related behaviour that does not constitute a criminal offence as student misconduct. The fact that 16% (24) of UK universities incorrectly advise their students that using drugs is a criminal offence suggests some confusion around the issue, which may lead to some students being disproportionately disciplined by institutions.”

The report recommends that drug possession incidents should be dealt with informally. “If a more punitive approach is required, this should be applied through a formal warning system. Students should not be reported to the police or permanently excluded from their studies for simply possessing a drug.”