More students are using drugs than ever before – let’s make sure it’s done safely

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Nitrous Oxide canisters lying on ground

Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Hansmuller

Georgina Hayes
Views Editor

Georgina Hayes discusses what more the university could do to improve drug education on campus

Have you ever snorted cocaine, taken MDMA, or inhaled a canister of nitrous oxide?

The answer to the above is probably a hard yes or a hard no; drug use is a contentious, controversial line of discussion that’s mostly tabooed from polite public discourse. As a society, balanced conversation around drug use is in prohibition – unless, of course, that conversation closes with the obvious conclusion that drug use is irresponsible at best and criminal at worst.

What our society-wide condemnation of drugs fails to accept, though, is that most people will try drugs at some point in their lives. In fact, according to a survey of 8,000 students across the UK from The Mirror, an average of 70% of students have admitted to trying drugs. What may startle fervent drug naysayers even further is that over half of the top twenty ‘most druggiest’ universities in the UK are Russell Groups.

Glasgow’s percentage is slightly lower than the UK average; according to the survey, 68% of the students that rush up and down University Avenue, spend their Thursdays in Beer Bar and climb the dreaded Library Hill during exam time have all tried an illegal substance. This might come as a surprise for some, whilst others may wonder with incredulity how the percentage isn’t higher.

The simple reality that our educated, prosperous youth sometimes use drugs is problematic news for the hard-line proponents of the War on Drugs: nobody can accuse these people of being ‘foolish’ or ‘wasters’, so why are drugs so popular amongst students in particular? The answers to that question are varied, diverse and complicated, but with drugs seemingly an unavoidable part of student life, it begs the question: could we do more as a university to ensure that drugs are taken safely and relatively responsibly?

Some may say that there is no safe way to take drugs safely or responsibly, but that’s an ideological standpoint whose advocates have their heads buried firmly in the sand. The ‘drug awareness’ lessons we all suffered through in school make students anything but aware: instead of being given crucial information on drug interactions, safe dosages and what drugs are safer than others, young people are shown dramatic and bombastic videos about smoking one joint of cannabis and succumbing to a life of crime.

Education and free access to drug testing doesn’t equate to propaganda. Glasgow City Council have recognised this, as in cooperation with Police Scotland and various drug charities, Glasgow will be the first UK council ward to offer ‘safe zones’ for addicts to use without fear of persecution from the police. Some may vehemently disagree with this decision and disregard it as reckless – or indeed accuse it of actively encouraging drug use – but in reality it’s simply treating drug addicts as patients rather than criminals. Alcoholism and nicotine addiction are rightfully treated as struggles to be resolved with patience, sympathy and professional medical assistance. Drug addiction should be treated with that same consideration, and Glasgow City Council’s decision to create ‘safe zones’ for drug users is laudable.

For the most part, students take drugs recreationally and not due to a hard-line heroin addiction. That being said, Glasgow University could still do well to follow Glasgow City Council’s example: students take drugs in overwhelming numbers, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a risk attached. Some drugs mixed with others can lead to an overdose; some substances mixed with alcohol can be fatal, and some drugs might be cut with something toxic if you don’t know what you’re buying or who from. At the same time, with the right precautions taken, some drugs can be relatively harmless and arguably less dangerous than alcohol.

Unhelpful understandings of drugs can be fatal. Awareness of drug interactions, safe doses and free access to drug testing could go a long way in preventing some of the horror stories we see on the news when drug use goes wrong. Quite often, it was not the substance itself that harmed someone but the lack of education and awareness surrounding the drug.

Each year, an influx of naïve first years that may never have experienced life beyond the confines of their hometown will join our university community. When they do, they’ll be exposed to an environment of alcohol, recreational drugs, and exciting new experiences. What they won’t get, however, is any substantive guidance or support from the university on how to use drugs safely. A leaflet in a Freshers pack or workshops on drug use and drug addiction – ones that don’t require taking the intimidating step of going beyond the university community – could go a long way to prepare students for the realities they will inevitably face.

When we bury our heads in the sand when confronted with issues that make us uncomfortable, we do a disservice to society’s most vulnerable. Improving drug education within the university does not equate to encouraging the use of illegal substances. Instead, it sends a positive, progressive message: if you are going to use, then do it safely – we are here to support you.