Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Drug harm reduction pilot in universities and students’ unions – an overview

  • 18 April 2023
  • By Tracey Lumb
  • This HEPI blog was kindly written by Tracy Lumb, of Students Organising for Sustainability and is part of a two-blog series. This overview article introduces the pilot and will be followed by a case study from Keele University.

Two years after Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK) launched the Drug and Alcohol Impact pilot, we reflect on the lessons learned in transitioning away from a purely punitive approach to student drug use.

Historically, UK university campuses have taken a zero-tolerance approach to student drug use. Whilst potentially aiming to reduce the prevalence, the Taking the Hit survey found that 65 per cent of students were unaware or did not know about their university’s drug policy, suggesting that this was an ineffective deterrent. As described in the HEPI debate paper, these policies may be not only ineffective but also cause further harm by preventing students from accessing support due to fear of punishment or other repercussions.

In November 2020, following a six-month sector-wide consultation, Drug and Alcohol Impact launched as a two-year pilot at four universities. The accreditation programme supported these universities and their students’ unions to take a harm reduction approach to student drug use that firmly prioritised the support and safety of students.

Why was Drug and Alcohol Impact programme developed?

In 2019, university and students’ unions participating in our Alcohol Impact behavioural change programme, increasingly wanted to apply the same model to addressing student drug use. There was an awareness by institutions that a proportion of their students were using drugs and a desire to offer greater support and reduce associated harms, but uncertainty on how to take this further. The reasons cited for this uncertainty included lack of staff knowledge, reputational risk, uncertainty around the legal landscape and lack of good practice or framework across the sector. Drug and Alcohol Impact was therefore developed to provide a clear framework to drive progress and a package of support for institutions.

Does harm reduction condone or normalise drug use?

As with other challenging subjects such as sexual or gender based violence, not talking about student drug use does not make it go away. Student surveys show that between 39 per cent and 56 per cent of students have used drugs now or in the past. Harm reduction recognises that not everyone is willing or able to cease illicit drug use, and there are steps that can be taken to reduce the adverse consequences and lifetime impacts of such use. Harm reduction in a higher education setting additionally involves increasing support for students concerned about substance use whilst simultaneously removing the stigma and barriers to accessing such support. Such approaches can also be a first step in reducing and even ceasing drug use. Harm reduction, therefore, does not condone or normalise drug use but recognises that some students will choose to use illicit drugs and that there are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of serious harm and drug-related deaths.

As this article was going to press, it was announced that possessing nitrous oxide is to be made a criminal offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This has raised questions on whether universities can continue their shift to harm reduction. Adopting a harm reduction approach on campus does not call on an institution to take a position on national drug policy, whether that be drug prohibition, decriminalisation or legalisation. Instead, the university would offer evidence-based information about nitrous oxide to support students’ understanding of the drug, its associated risks, and how those risks may be reduced. It would encourage communicating the support available internally and externally and removing the barriers or stigma to receiving such support.

Outcomes of the drug harm reduction pilot

Through the two-year programme, the universities and students’ unions:

  • Researched drug and alcohol use at their institution. 
  • Developed drug and alcohol policies oriented toward harm reduction and student support.  
  • Improved the provision of support for students.  
  • Provided harm reduction advice to students.
  • Set up training for relevant staff and student roles (e.g. residence advisors, peer mentors, bar staff, and others).
  • Redeveloped disciplinary procedures to increase support for students.

Full details of the actions and case studies can be found in the Drug and Alcohol Impact pilot report.

“It enables the conversation about drugs to exist in the context of wellbeing and positive student experience and success, rather than a negative media, sort of perception or a completely legalistic perception.” – Drug and Alcohol interview participant, 2022

Key recommendations for adopting a harm reduction approach

As the first programme of its kind, Drug and Alcohol Impact identified key recommendations for other institutions considering their approach:

  • Develop a strong partnership between the students’ union and the university.
  • Work with a range of stakeholders in instigating change. This should include representatives from wellbeing, security, accommodation, the students’ union, communication teams, community drug services, the night-time economy, and students. 
  • Senior management must show commitment to supporting a harm reduction approach. This includes allocating budget and resources to enable action, supporting process changes, and encouraging a multidisciplinary approach. 
  • Collaborate with other institutions. Having peer-to-peer support in different institutions allows sharing of experiences and guided reflection.
  • Target interventions, actions, and communications to the local context.
  • Communicate clearly your approach and support available to students.
  • Seek support from sector bodies to overcome challenges and drive continuous change. Institutions should establish relationships with those in the sector that can provide support and information, such as local community drug services, NHS services, and harm reduction organisations.

In May 2023, Universities UK will publish a framework to support the higher education sector in addressing student drug use through a harm-reduction approach. This practical experience will give the sector confidence in the positive outcomes of adopting such an approach.  

Join the conversation

The Drug and Alcohol Impact programme is now open to all UK universities and students’ unions to join and use as a tool to generate whole-campus change. Please contact Tracy Lumb for further information.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *