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Zero tolerance or zero support: drug policies at university

Last year, there was national outcry surrounding the systemic lack of guidance and support regarding drug use within places of academia. The tragic deaths of three UK university students in the North East serve as a reminder that more must be done to ensure the safety of students. Contrary to many people’s stereotypical assumptions upon hearing the words ‘drug-related death’, these students each had incredible futures ahead of them. The world has been deprived of their potential when it would likely have taken nothing more than information and resources to save them.

According to an anonymous survey conducted by The Boar Features, a staggering 50.7% of Warwick students feel that the university’s zero-tolerance drugs policy is a detriment to its students. 

The complete lack of harm reduction methods within our educational institutions is testimony to the hostile stigma surrounding drug use, leaving many to struggle in silence with no guidance or support.

Greater measures to ensure the mental wellbeing and awareness of students must be put in place. Through supporting both the prevention and the aftermath of drug use, they could even save a life.

The SSDP (a non-profit drugs’ charity raising awareness surrounding safe usage) addressed this incident on their website, describing the terrible loss of young life as “the worst way to be proven right.” They are of the belief that “the war on drugs is a war on us”, fighting for further awareness and discussion around drug use. The SSDP believes that their perception of drugs as an inevitable part of human existence will aid us in combating their damaging effect on people. In other words, ignoring the problem is not a solution.

Warwick is lagging behind other universities who are far less judgemental, and far more proactive about drug use. The Guardian gave an outline of progression – the University of Manchester are providing drugs testing kits for £2.50, while Birmingham and Newcastle have lifted their zero-tolerance policies and replaced them with awareness programmes and medical amnesty for those who need it. 

In his only known novel, Oscar Wilde describes the opium dens which plagued 19th-century London as places where one could “buy oblivion.” As a country, Britain’s imports of massive quantities of opium, morphine and cocaine for recreational use lasted right up until the start of the 20th century, when the International Opium Convention was imposed in 1912. How then, has western society transitioned so dramatically, from the uncontrolled global trade of opiates, to the complete and utter demonization of drugs? 

Removing the toxicity from drug culture and advocating that people are aware of what is in their drugs would be a massive improvement from the current environment, where many are consuming drugs from unreliable sources

The most common theme shared among participants of our survey concerning Warwick was that students should not be afraid to discuss drug use. Removing the toxicity from drug culture and advocating that people are aware of what is in their drugs would be a massive improvement from the current environment, where many are consuming drugs from unreliable sources with no clue as to what they may contain. 

If drugs testing kits were available anonymously for those who are inevitably going to take drugs at Warwick, it would seemingly be of great use to the 31.5% of the students surveyed who said they have used an illegal substance at Warwick, and also to the 69.7% of students who have been exposed to drug use – making them feel much more secure and at ease in such situations in the future.

The concept of harm reduction regarding drugs in the UK was born during the HIV/AIDS outbreak in Britain. For the first time, people were encouraged to take care in syringe exchange to prevent themselves from catching the deadly virus. In other words, it was a mere forty years ago that the first piece of advice on how to take drugs more safely was given. 

It took a completely unrelated health crisis for people to be guided on such an inescapable component of society. This is the result of the complete failure of our governments, which we see reflected in the educational institutions of our country today. 

The coronavirus pandemic appears to be the health disaster of our time which, like the AIDS outbreak, pointed us towards the drugs crisis which has been simmering in the background for far too long.

According to Crew, a Scottish drug treatment and education charity, 57.3% of the people surveyed reported an increase in drug use during the first lockdown. This statistic reflects on students, who have been neglected throughout the pandemic. Naturally, prevention is better than cure – so the more information, advice, help we can offer our students, the better.

It’s a trope of university life, maybe even a one-time thing to be experimental. I think what’s important rather than having a zero-tolerance drug policy is that students are made aware of the dangers and of what a safer environment for taking them looks like

– Warwick University student

“It’s a trope of university life, maybe even a one-time thing to be experimental. I think what’s important rather than having a zero-tolerance drug policy is that students are made aware of the dangers and of what a safer environment for taking them looks like” said a Warwick University student.

So, what kind of support do students want, and what sort of demand for aid is there on our own campus? In The Boar Features’ anonymous survey, 74.4% of 207 participants said that they wanted the University to implement educational programmes to inform and warn students about the dangers of drug use. Many who said otherwise voiced concerns that they would be spoken down to, or merely instructed with ironic futility ‘don’t take drugs’.

A unanimous 83.1% of students surveyed were in support of the provision of drug testing kits

Additionally, a unanimous 83.1% of students surveyed were in support of the provision of drugs testing kits, to enable those who will take drugs regardless to ensure they are doing so as safely as possible. However, others claimed that the University must not promote illegal activity, and that drugs testing kits may be seen as enabling and encouraging the use of damaging substances on our campus. 

One of the participants said: “the issue needs to be dealt with in the context of young adults rather than children – people aren’t naive to risks and safety should be the priority, followed by understanding so people can get any help they might need to get clean without fear of expulsion or criminal action.”

According to The Tab, an online media output that covers a broad range of UK university news, the University of Warwick has consistently low numbers when it comes to drug use, signifying that perhaps drug use at Warwick is not as out of control as it may be at other universities. 

Across the 31 universities which were surveyed, Warwick had the lowest percentage of students who take pills, MDMA and cocaine, while their position was slightly higher for lower-class drugs such as cannabis, where they ranked 19th. Although this seems relatively encouraging, a massive 46.75% of Warwick students surveyed said they had taken MDMA, which is a clear call for improvement. 

In conjunction with alarmingly high figures such as these, concerning are some of the responses given in The Boar Features’ survey. One in particular detailed how their flatmate, who took drugs regularly, received warning after warning instead of being either helped or reprimanded.  Many feel that the University must not remain so complacent with its largely unenforced zero-tolerance drugs’ policy, which evidently neither helps or hinders the drug users on our campus. 

When asked whether the university had plans to make drug testing kits available on campus, Warwick stated that: “the University has no plans in this regard.”

We must end the “oblivion” at Warwick, by informing and supporting the student body as thoroughly as possible. This will in turn improve the health and happiness of our students, making for a better working environment for all. 

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