WHEN William Straw goes to Oxford in 1999 after his year off - if he achieves his expected A-level grades - he is likely to find more than a third of his fellow students have experimented with drugs.
This is assuming Oxford conforms to the national norm for student drug-taking. A 1996 study into drug and alcohol use among second-year students in ten universities found 20 per cent of students surveyed were using cannabis at least once a week.
A third had experimented with illicit drugs and a third of these had tried several. Nearly half of the drug users said they had started at school. Another national survey of 5,000 final-year students found a quarter used soft and hard drugs recreationally. Recent research by the Oxford student magazine Cherwell found 34 per cent of Oxford undergraduates had tried hard drugs.
Drugs are such a common part of student life that on-campus campaigns now concentrate on keeping students informed about the effects of different illegal substances, rather than taking a firm anti-drugs line.
Pamela Bell-Ashe, chair of the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education, said: "We have tried to make sure people are aware of the effects of drugs and the risks so that students can make their own informed decisions. We also ask staff to look out for students' work suffering through drugs."
Institutions are likely to be much tougher on students supplying drugs than on those just using them, she said. Universities and colleges decide themselves how to deal with drugs offences among students, although they can be prosecuted if they allow illegal activities to take place in buildings they own or manage. Most try to be sensitive to the circumstances of each individual case in what is becoming an increasingly grey area. Guidelines drawn up last year by the AMSSHE recommended that universities should find out how tough the local police force is towards cannabis in developing their own policies.
But the 1994 Zellick report into student disciplinary procedures recommended that all offences related to controlled drugs should be notified to the police.
The future of William Straw, son of home secretary Jack Straw, at Oxford is unlikely to be affected by allegations that he supplied cannabis to two journalists. He has not been charged and the amount allegedly involved is small. But the university says it takes a serious view of drugs "both from a welfare and discipline point of view".