Giving you the insight into matters directly related to student life is the Pi Comment column, Spotlight: UCL, Universities and Young People, where our team of columnists tackle the issues affecting students today. Cathy Meyer-Funnel makes the case for freedom of choice in the face of overbearing drug use measures in universities.
Drug use on university campuses is, for many students, an accepted part of their experience, whether they are users or not. It has never been legal, yet particularly in large cities such as London it is hard to know how preventative measures would really be effective. Presumably this is why universities such as Manchester, Newcastle and Sussex have decided to take an alternative approach by offering drug testing kits to their students, enabling them to test the toxicity of their illegal substances and thereby make a more informed decision about what exactly they are putting in their bodies.
According to NUS vice-president for welfare Eva Crossan Jory, “More and more unions are asking about drug-testing kits. So we are trying to make the kits cheaper and more accessible” – it seems a change in the official stance on drug taking might be gaining ground. In an article by The Independent, NUS findings have – for instance the fact that 56% of students surveyed have admitted to taking illegal drugs and two in five are regular users – prompted a shift in popular opinion amongst student unions as to the best way to handle this epidemic. Phrases like ‘harm reduction’ and ‘poor mental health and stress’ suggest a strict policy of punishment is more likely to cause problems than solve them.
However, the traditional zero tolerance on drugs still remains at other institutions. Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, has asked his students to pledge to refrain from drug taking on campus; for him the ‘revolution’ begins with stamping out the prevalence of these substances.
Surely it is naïve to expect the hedonism of student nightlife to die out anytime soon, not to mention optimistic to believe a simple contract will achieve what decades of government campaigns and money could not. Yet our approach to artificial enhancements does seem to be changing. Over one in five students now claim to be teetotal and there is increasing demand for less focus on alcohol when socialising, particularly during Fresher’s Week. Whether for cultural reasons, a rejection of the clubbing lifestyle or refusing to buckle under peer pressure, both unions and their students are looking for new ways to handle the use of drugs and alcohol.
Understandably, there are those that fear that these kits will only encourage students to take drugs by legitimising what has until now been taboo. But is it not patronising to tell grown adults that their institution knows better than they do and say what they should and shouldn’t put into their systems?
Education has often been seen as the solution to situations such as these. Clearly students know from a purely medicinal perspective that drugs are bad for them, nor do we need to lecture them about the potential legal implications of buying or distributing them. But if we allow them the power to know exactly what it is they are taking, thus informing them as well as they could possibly be informed, it enables a relationship of trust and responsibility to develop between unions and their students, rather than a condescending imposition of authority over what students can and cannot do outside university hours.
It could be (although I have no evidence to support this) that this shift away from alcohol could encourage more students to try drugs instead. Whether this is true or not, given the popularity of both among many students nationwide, perhaps a different approach is what we need. Like many universities, UCL has a Drug Prevention Program, with the union not offering to provide drug testing kits. Yet the contribution of two former UCL students to the founding of drugsand.me, a website designed to educate people about harm reduction techniques for those that take drugs, which also recommends using these kits, has garnered much praise from drug policy campaigners and experts. It is reduction rather than prevention that seems to be the go-to tactic nowadays. People will take drugs if they want to, regardless of the risks. Therefore, with these kits, student unions are honouring their duty to protect the welfare of their students, while still allowing them choice and autonomy over their bodies. Or are they? Are we now being told as students that it is ok to take drugs, despite the fact they remain very much illegal for the rest of the population?
Even if we are arguably in a better position with these kits, from a health point of view, the law is hardly likely to look more favourably on the possession of MDMA or cocaine just because it was tested for purity first. Should these unions be more aware of the potential consequences of their apparent condonement of using drugs?
The first priority of any university should be the care of their students, both academically and socially. However, this does not change the fact that students are generally legal adults who should be able to make their own choices about how to live their lives. Ultimately, what this comes down to is choice – the choice to take drugs or not and the choice to test them for purity or not. Whatever their union or the police say, students will always want to make their own choice.