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Student drug use: three outstanding questions

  • 3 March 2022
  • By Nick Hillman

HEPI has today published a new report on illegal drug use among students. Nick Hillman, HEPI’s Director:

  • looks back on HEPI’s previous (smaller) piece of work on the subject from 2018, which took a different point of view;
  • considers the role of a think tank in encouraging debate on issues where there is no clear consensus; and
  • raises three outstanding policy-related questions about students’ drug use.

Four years ago, back in 2018, HEPI collaborated with YouthSight and the University of Buckingham on a small but representative poll of students on their drug use. We found:

  • nearly three-quarters of students (71%) had not taken illegal drugs while in higher education;
  • nearly two-thirds of students wanted their university to take ‘a stronger line on’ both ‘students who repeatedly use drugs’ (62%) as well as ‘drug dealers’ (also 62%); and
  • just over half of students (53%) believed their university did not do enough to deter illegal drug use.

The results were very different to those revealed in other (unrepresentative) surveys and we published them under the title, ‘Most students think taking illegal drugs causes problems for users as well as society and want their universities to take a tougher stance’.

It turned out to be one of the most controversial things we have ever done.

The National Union of Students (NUS) attacked us for including in the survey students who ‘have not used drugs’, even though our results suggested they made up a majority of students (and therefore a majority of NUS’s own members).

We gave space on the HEPI blog to an academic who criticised us for ‘loading the ammunition’ for people who wish ‘to pursue more punitive drug policies.’ He didn’t stop there, also accusing HEPI of ‘cling[ing] obstinately to an attention-grabbing, misleading headline that does an injustice to those who in good-faith agreed to take part in their survey.’

Of course our survey was not perfect. No survey is. As with every other poll we’ve ever conducted, once we had received the results we thought of small improvements we might have made were we ever to re-do the work. Moreover, the results are of limited use today, as they show the picture before the COVID-related upheavals of the last couple of years – most people who were at university back in 2018 have now left higher education. But with these important caveats, we stand by the results because nothing we have seen suggests they were an inaccurate snapshot of drug use among students.

Nonetheless, as a non-ideological and non-partisan charity, HEPI has the huge advantage of not having to keep to a single line on any issue. So, for example, we have published full-length reports for and against academic selection and for and against the current high fees / high loans student funding model in England.

Today, we have published a Debate Paper which takes a very different stance from our previous work on students and drugs. It argues students would be safer if their institutions’ strategies for responding to student drug use were based primarily on harm reduction. Whereas in 2018 the conclusion of our work was that ‘a tougher stance’ was needed, the new paper argues we should reduce the stigma associated with illegal drug taking so that it is easier for students to seek the support they want and need.

It is a timely intervention because, just as the new HEPI report was being sent to the designers, we discovered Universities UK were kicking off their own workstream on student drug use, which also apparently looks to give a substantial role to ‘harm reduction’ approaches.

Nonetheless, it is vital we do not forget one thing: the role of a think tank is to make people think; it is not to tell people what to think. HEPI is not a lobbying organisation. And just as our 2018 survey on student drug use prompted a fierce debate, including lots of opposition, this new HEPI report may do the same.

For me personally, the paper has prompted lots of thoughts and there are three specific areas where – as a reader more than a producer of policy papers and as a parent more than a policy wonk – I want to know more:

  1. Who is listening to the majority of students? If representative surveys suggest most students do not take drugs and do not want to live with those who do, how should their voice be reflected in policy?
  2. How could a university address the harm caused to any student who has been supported to take drugs ‘safely’? It is widely accepted that universities should contact those close to students, such as their parents, when they face severe challenges – for example, if they are suffering badly from mental ill health. How does that sit alongside the idea that universities should simultaneously treat students who take drugs, which can exacerbate mental health problems (and worse), with constructive support?
  3. Where does the duty of care towards students and their future careers end? Some professions are difficult (or even impossible) to enter if you have a drug-related conviction. Yet a harm-reduction strategy that removes much of the stigma of using drugs could mean impressionable students experiment more than they otherwise would have done. Will we do students a disservice if drug use is more normalised, especially if it ends up closing some careers off to them? Higher education should always be about opening up opportunities not shutting them down.

Some people in the sector with whom I have discussed all this tell me there is little need to worry about such practical challenges because the world is heading in one direction. The argument runs that, because some other countries have recently reduced or abolished penalties for drug (mis)use, the UK (in whole or in part) is bound to do so soon as well.

I have struggled to find persuasive evidence to support this so have yet to be convinced. Currently, illegal drug use remains illegal and there are signs that, at Westminster at least, the pendulum is currently swinging in a more controlling – rather than a more liberal – direction.

For example, in December 2021 Ministers heralded a new era of ‘early intervention for young people’ and outlined what this new clampdown is likely to look like:

for adults taking recreational drugs, who are too often sheltered from the serious violence, human exploitation, severe addiction and crime of the drugs trade, there will be tougher consequences which will be felt more strongly than today. A White Paper next year will consider a series of escalating sanctions such as curfews or the temporary removal of a passport or driving licence, and increased fines.

Perhaps a different Government would take a different approach. But rather than calling for decriminalisation or some such in response to the Government’s ‘drugs plan’, the Official Opposition bemoaned the low number of prosecutions and convictions, noting ‘prosecutions for drug offences are down 36% since 2010 and convictions down 43%.’

Expecting universities to ignore this political reality would raise a host of difficult questions that we need to discuss openly if the authors of HEPI’s newest report are to usher in the sort of world they and many others would like to see.

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