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University drug policy: disciplinary, educational and health approaches

By Freya Corcoran

The Glasgow Guardian explores the University of Glasgow’s approach to drug policy.

“Never have I ever done hard drugs,” someone pipes up from across the room. Everyone takes a drink.

After a year of being locked in Murano, there now lies the promised land of heavy techno clubs with strobe lighting that are just “so much better after a key”. Cue the three girls in the bathroom stall and a teeny bit of peer pressure. Whatever the reason may be, many at pre-drinks have not made it through two years of uni without an illegal baggy of some sort living in the back of their phone case. This is normal, though. Right? 

Wrong. Kind of. According to a survey conducted in 2020, 58% of UK students take or have taken hard drugs. So maybe that game was slightly disproportionate, but student drug culture is just as big of a thing as ever, and university policy remains somewhat unchanged. 

Drug possession at the University of Glasgow is considered a Level 1 Sanction, meaning a student found in possession of drugs could face multiple repercussions; including a £350 fine, suspension from all or part of the university for up to three months and/or a drugs awareness program, the costs of which the student may be expected to cover, among other things. A repeat possession, however, could result in the student’s expulsion from university accommodation, permanent expulsion from the university, and/or any other sanction that the committee deems appropriate. 

Along with most laws and rules concerning the possession and use of drugs, universities’ drugs policies face criticism from multiple actors; students, health and mental health professionals and drug decriminalisation activists, to name a few. It is clear that there is a fairly widespread opinion that the drug policy takes the wrong approach rather. The Glasgow Guardian conducted a survey on 50 university or ex-university students, the majority of whom are currently studying at the University of Glasgow. Out of these respondents, only one replied with “disciplinary” when asked what approach should be taken by universities concerning the use or possession of drugs by students. 

Multiple participants left comments concerning the help that they wished was still or had been available. When prompted to explain any experience that they may have had with the university regarding drug usage, one respondent answered, “I wish there had been times where there was an intervention, from someone at least”. Students’ opinions on drug use are not naive. From the survey, 82% replied that they did not think drug culture at university was healthy, and it is clear that whilst drugs might still be an enjoyable weekend venture for some, others regretted the lack of help that they had received and had developed unhealthy relationships with several Class A substances. 

There are stories, as there always will be, of people who have faced awful experiences at the hand of drugs. This is not exclusive to heroin addicts or even to addicts at all. A severe decline in mental health is not uncommon among first-year uni students; once fresh-faced, vowing never to touch them, who by Christmas have found a new liking for some sort of fine white powder – in lieu of serotonin. In these situations, is it really sensible for the university’s policy to be disciplinary? Student drug culture may be unhealthy, and dependencies may form quickly and easily. Still, a relationship between drugs and students is almost inevitable, so unless the university wants to lose all its money and kick all its arts students out at the drop of a cap (or sniff of a key), disciplinary action on drugs seems unwise. As largely found by drug laws on a national level, criminalisation doesn’t result in a lack of drug-related crimes, usage, possession, dealing or even death. The university is not benefitting from its drugs policy, nor are students restricting their intake as a result. The inability to ask for help for mental health or other issues as a result of drug use, in fear of punishment or expulsion, is likely to mean that the chance of an unhealthy relationship forming and lasting is higher. 

The University of Glasgow, along with all or most other universities, does have a policy on substance abuse and addiction. This differs from the university drug policy and takes an evidently health-based approach for the welfare of the student(s) suffering from drug or alcohol-related issues, but this does not rectify the issue within its handling of student drug habits. There is a strong argument that it should not take a student being addicted to drugs for the university to take a non-disciplinary approach to the issue. Health and education policies should extend to the use of drugs by students and should be promoted to all students at the beginning of and throughout their degree. 

Realistically, there is little that a university can do to prohibit the use of drugs by its students, and the volume of students who have and continue to take hard drugs is not limited by universities’ current approaches. Drugs can obviously be dangerous, and priority should be based on student health and welfare, educating them on the risks involved with their casual Friday night pastime and ensuring that there are systems in place to help students who are in difficult situations, whether it be from their own or someone else’s drug use. The Times wrote that “Universities are being told to take a ‘positive rather than punitive approach’ to drugs amid growing concern that expelling and reporting students who use substances can ruin lives”. This has come as a welcome headline for many involved in drug rehabilitation and those who work in student welfare, along with students themselves. 

Education, as universities should know best, is vital, and supporting students with health and education approaches towards drugs is a positive way forward. Maybe those deviously shaped little love heart pills won’t be quite so deceiving in the future. Maybe, or maybe not, someone won’t drink at “Never Have I Ever” next time. Drug use reduction may not be in our sights, but here’s hoping the next lucky lot of students to be locked in Murano might be slightly happier at Christmas time.


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