‘Just say no’ to zero tolerance policies

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Release’s Laura Garius discusses why universities must adopt harm reduction.

It’s time to adopt a harm-reduction approach to student drug use. Despite decades of universities taking the ‘just say no’ approach, and with some actively pursuing an idealistic ‘drug-free campus‘, research shows that the majority of students have, or will, use illicit drugs.

Now more than ever, as we see student drug use rise in the Covid-19 pandemic, universities must recognise the importance of adopting a harm reduction approach, and acknowledge the harm caused by their existing response(s) to drug use.

According to national surveys, students are the employment group with the highest prevalence of drug use. This trend is strongly linked to students’ age, given that 16 to 24-year-olds are the age group most likely to experiment with drugs. Furthermore, national surveys like the Crime Survey for England and Wales are likely to underestimate student drug use as they do not survey student halls of residence. Other surveys, including Release and NUS’ own 2018 student survey, confirm that drug use, whilst infrequent, is commonplace: with over half of the student population (56%) reporting having used drugs.

Despite this, there continues to be a concerning lack of harm reduction advice from higher education institutions. Equally concerning are the large number of institutions pursuing formal disciplinary measures, with some also introducing additional forms of surveillance, both of which are proven to cause harm to students.

Taking the hit: a review of drug policies across UK higher education

In our 2018 report, ‘Taking the Hit’, Release and NUS reviewed the drug policies of 151 UK higher education institutions. We found that for a student caught in possession of a drug, formal disciplinary measures could include temporary or permanent exclusion, eviction from accommodation, or referral to the police.

In fact, in more than a quarter of incidents (26%) involving students found in possession of drugs for personal use, students were referred to the police by their institution. Do institutions understand that there is no legal obligation to take this step? Or do they purposefully subject their students, for whom they have a duty of care, to potentially life-altering punishment?

One finding that does indicate a misunderstanding of current UK drug law is that over half of institutions have policies which allow for the punishment of drug-related behaviour not considered to be a criminal offence.

For example, despite the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 not criminalising the possession of new/novel psychoactive substances (such as nitrous oxide), a number of policies are in place that equate this to possession of a controlled drug.

Read the full blog post here.


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