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Stakeholder engagement is the only way out of the higher education drugs problem

  • 4 October 2021
  • By Arda Ozcubukcu

This blog was kindly contributed by Arda Ozcubukcu, co-founder and director of NeuroSight. Arda is on Twitter @ArdaOzcubukcu.

An open and honest conversation around drugs does not exist within and across higher education institutions. Staff and students do not believe there is an environment in which they can freely express what they think of drugs or disclose their drug use. Some higher education institutions even hesitate to champion policies and interventions they pilot to avoid potential backlash. This situation prevents higher education institutions from effectively dealing with drug-related issues and keeping students safe from harm.

Even a common language to talk about drugs does not exist demonstrating a lack of effective communication in this area. The word ‘drug’ can refer to different substances, which might include or exclude alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and prescribed medications. In this blog, the word ‘drug’ refers to illicitly used substances for simplicity, although, from a scientific perspective, all substances that affect how the brain works are a drug, including caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.

The stigma attached to drug use is one of the main barriers to having such a conversation and is rooted in seeing drug use as a matter of the criminal justice system. The use of certain drugs is made illegal on the basis that this behaviour is harmful and antisocial. However, most drugs are more harmful to the user than the people around them. Protecting and promoting the health and wellbeing of individuals is the purpose of public health, and therefore, a health-driven approach would be more appropriate to reduce drug-related harm to individuals. The moral condemnation of drug use due to its illegal status distracts higher education institutions from the fact that drug use is fundamentally a health issue and prevents a conversation focused on safeguarding students.

The consequences of not having an open and honest conversation can be severe not only for students but also for higher education institutions. Such an environment can cause more harm to students that could be avoided otherwise. The lack of conversations about drugs leads to less informed students who do not know how to stay safe or keep other students safe whether they use drugs or not. The fear of punishment and moral judgment results in students not disclosing drug use in cases they might need help and support, which sometimes make the difference between life and death. For institutions, designing relevant and effective policies and interventions becomes challenging as they do not understand the needs and concerns of students who use drugs as well as the other stakeholders involved.

Many people have concerns around talking more openly about drugs and providing a more honest drug education. These concerns show remarkable similarities to the introduction of sex education that included discussions on pleasure and safe sex. Both are health-related behaviours and seen from a moral perspective, while a more open conversation around them was thought to normalise and hence increase these potentially harmful behaviours. However, despite the concerns around promiscuity, having a more open and honest sex education reduced the rates of AIDS/HIV and teenage pregnancy without leading to increased sexual activity in the end.  

Due of the association between morality, legality and drug-use, opinions on how to best tackle drug-related issues vary. Individuals or organisations can be vocal about the ways in which drug harms should be prevented (examples include but are not limited to the reports by Higher Education Policy Institution and National Union of Students). This situation should be seen as positive, as it shows that they care about the safety and wellbeing of students regarding drug use and are willing to put the time and effort to address the problem. One side might want to prevent drug harms by preventing drug use and the other might accept that drug use cannot be completely prevented and focus on directly preventing harms instead. All sides value the same end result: it is only their means that are different. 

A constructive conversation around drugs should focus on the desired outcomes and enable individuals and organisations to see how those can be achieved by taking into account the concerns and needs of all sides and stakeholders, including students. For instance, stakeholders should decide whether the primary outcome should be deterring drug use, or should be preventing avoidable deaths and increasing drug use disclosure to access support. Higher education institutions should answer the question of whether they want to teach a moral lesson with potentially serious unintended consequences, or support students’ health and wellbeing during a time young people take risks and learn from their experiences. Answering this will require more observation, specifically a better evaluation of relative harms of drug use and related policies, and communication without judgment.

Drug use has been mainly framed as a criminal justice issue at a national level. Such a framing reduced what is a complicated problem into the presence and absence of drug use while policies have been simplified to being ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ on drugs. The drug debate needs more nuance than that, which can only be created by an open and honest conversation involving all stakeholders. The right answer is never either black or white, and will likely include a good balance between criminal justice and health driven policies. For example, addressing the antisocial impacts of drug use through punishment and health impacts through support is achievable in theory. However, how this can be best implemented will require stakeholder engagement.   

Existing policies have not been able to effectively solve drug-related issues so far because they have been trying to solve the wrong problem. The drug problem needs better framing and the voices of all stakeholders should contribute to its definition. There are now attempts to initiate an open and honest conversation, one of which is this webinar hosting different stakeholders to share their observations and experiences. All policymakers, staff and governors should be part of this conversation and keep it going in a constructive way.   

HEPI’s previous work on drugs includes a poll of students’ opinions about drug use which you can read about here.

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