Zero-tolerance campus drug policies ‘do more harm than good’

‘We are not excusing illegal behaviour, but we are acknowledging that it happens and appears widespread’, says Hepi paper advocating harm reduction approach

三月 3, 2022
Member of the Brighton Cannabis Club poses to illustrate Zero-tolerance campus drug policies ‘do more harm than good’
Source: Alamy

Zero-tolerance policies on drug use in UK universities may cause more damage than they prevent, and institutions should instead adopt a harm reduction approach, according to experts.

In a paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute on 3 March, Arda Ozcubukcu and Graham Towl warn that punitive policies on drugs have been “commonly” adopted across universities, students’ unions and halls of residence, deterring users from seeking the help they need.

This comes as surveys suggest that drug use is on the rise among young people in the UK, with indications that between one and two in every five students have used illicit drugs in the past year.

Ms Ozcubukcu, director of Neurosight, a social enterprise focused on reducing the harm arising from drug use, and Professor Towl, professor of forensic psychology at Durham University, acknowledge that for higher education institutions, there “are public relations risks” associated with approaches that may include advising students on how to use drugs safely.

“We are clear that we are not excusing illegal behaviour, but we are acknowledging that it happens and appears widespread,” the pair write. “Our collective failure to fully acknowledge that will not help us address the problem.

“Talking about it and encouraging students to come forward is, we argue, the first step in beginning to make some real differences for students and broader society.”

Last month, Universities UK said that it would draw up new guidance designed to set out a “common approach” to tackling drug use on campuses, “firmly based on harm reduction”.

According to the Hepi paper, elements of this could include supporting local drug services that students may feel more comfortable talking to than university services and providing honest and non-judgemental evidence about drugs, “mentioning both the positive and negative effects”.

Staff such as accommodation wardens and personal tutors could “initiate informal conversations when they observe behaviours or psychological states related to drug use”, while universities could provide drug testing services, allowing users to check that the substances they are taking are not contaminated. Institutions could also “monitor” the local drug market with external partners to allow warnings about dangerous drugs to be circulated.

Such interventions, the report says, “may result in ongoing communications so that we have the opportunity to influence students’ behaviour such that they are taking illicit drugs as safely as feasible, or better still, we are able to give them help with coming off drugs”.

“If students aren’t asking for help in a life-threatening situation because they worry about punishment, then that’s a big problem,” Ms Ozcubukcu said. “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.”

The report was backed by Mike Barton, former chief constable of Durham Constabulary.

“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,” he said.



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