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Universities should be more tolerant of drug use if they are to keep students safe from drug harms

  • 3 March 2022

A new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, Illicit drug use in universities: zero tolerance or harm reduction? (HEPI Debate Paper 29), suggests a zero-tolerance approach to illicit drug use may cause more harm than it prevents, as those who need help do not come forward for fear of punishment. Drawing on available evidence, the authors Arda Ozcubukcu and Professor Graham Towl argue that an approach based on public health and focused on harm reduction is a better way to deal with students who take illegal drugs.

The report proposes a more tolerant and outcomes-based approach to illicit drug taking on campus. This prioritises preventing drug harms over preventing drug use, at least in the short term, in cases where students are unwilling or unable to quit using illicit drugs.

Many students experiment with drugs. If they want to come forward for support in coming off drugs, as the report discusses, higher education institutions should help them by providing an enabling environment. Taking that one step further, the paper proposes that, if students are taking illicit drugs and want to do so less unsafely, then they need help with this too, rather than risk greater harm to themselves.

There is a gap between what the decision-makers think and what the reality is for students when it comes to drug-related matters, making it challenging to frame the problem accurately. To contribute to the debate on how higher education institutions can best help students, the report includes several recommendations to reduce drug-related harms, including:

  • framing illicit drug use as a health issue, rather than as predominantly a criminal justice issue;
  • integrating drug use matters into broader institutional narratives such as mental health and wellbeing; and
  • providing non-judgmental information on drugs through campaigns, workshops, talks and online materials.

Arda Ozcubukcu, Co-founder and Director at NeuroSight and one of the authors of the report, said:

If students aren’t asking for help in a life-threatening situation because they worry about punishment, then that’s a big problem. We all want students to be safe. Harm reduction based approaches can literally save lives. Tolerating drug use might feel uncomfortable but what matters is the outcomes. This is a complex problem which cannot be reduced to the presence or absence of drug use. Universities have the opportunity to bring the nuance needed to address this problem and set an example to other institutions.

Graham Towl, Professor of Forensic Psychology at Durham University and the other author of the report, said:

The higher education sector already seems to be moving away from the blunt instrument of “zero tolerance” to a more evidence-informed approach in tackling our problem with illicit drug use among students. The tide is turning and we have an opportunity to make a difference in terms of securing better outcomes for students in need of help. Our work in this area will also more than likely save student lives too – what could be more important than that?

Mike Barton, former Chief Constable of Durham, said:

The use of ‘zero tolerance’ is mystifying both in its prevalence and its futility. It results in a cruel lottery in terms of its impact on individual students and creates and fosters a wider encouragement of unsafe environments for those engaged in already risky practices.

John de Pury, Assistant Director of Policy at Universities UK, said:

Universities need a different conversation about drugs. We need to listen to students to understand and address harms and risks. Above all, we need an open and evidenced approach that has at its heart the safety and health of our university communities. I welcome this HEPI report and the clarity with which its authors put health outcomes first. It coincides with and informs UUK’s recently announced taskforce on student drug use.

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI (www.hepi.ac.uk) was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. HEPI Debate Papers are designed to stimulate informed conversations about topical issues: they do not represent HEPI’s official position nor should they be read as reflecting the position of any individual HEPI staff member. HEPI’s previous work on drug use among students, which appeared in 2018 and which comes from a different viewpoint, is available here
  2. Arda Ozcubukcu is a Neuroscience graduate with a Master’s in policy from University College London. She is Co-founder and Director at NeuroSight, where she helps organisations implement drug harm reduction policies.
  3. Graham Towl is Professor of Forensic Psychology at Durham University and a national adviser on mental health to the Nightline Association. Formerly he was a senior civil servant and Chief Psychologist at the Ministry of justice.

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