Get the drugs debate rolling

April 3, 1998

When Andrew Lockley wrote in The THES last week that he had been, in his own words, "an evil drug dealer", we did not identify the university he was attending though he decided to sign his article. The university has now reported him to the police and suspended him.

The University of Birmingham has had a problem with drugs before. In 1995 a student, Philip Davies, died after sniffing heroin. The supplier was prosecuted and jailed for five years. Since then Birmingham has made considerable efforts to control a problem no means confined to universities. It has disciplined a number of offenders and reported two to the police. All the offences after the Davies case, except for one, involved only cannabis. The student union has also started checking students attending union events and the university has beefed up its drug information programmes.

Birmingham is now likely to be pilloried for trying to sort out a problem too many universities prefer to sweep under the carpet. It will be ironic if its admissions suffer compared to those where the authorities are more complacent.

The drug culture is a problem much larger than the universities though some figures suggest students may be the most enthusiastic users. There is widespread disagreement over whether to go for the kind of non-judgemental approach Mr Lockley advocates, treating drugs much like alcohol and tobacco, or more draconian measures as Mrs Davies advocated after her son's death. Birmingham has sensibly been doing both.

The THES recently published an account of a student who was paying his way through university by drug dealing (January 9). We named neither the student nor the university. As a result the story could not be followed up and universities have been able to continue on their complacent way. This time a student had the courage to open the debate about drugs on campus and has thereby forced a reaction.

The way most universities turn a blind eye to widespread student drug use is reprehensible. As we said in January: "The present situation, like the poll tax, risks making students complacent about breaking the law." We called then for open discussion of what changes, if any, should be made to the law - a need made more urgent by the legalise cannabis bandwagon that rolled into Trafalgar Square last weekend. We will shortly be publishing the latest evidence on the impact of cannabis on health and safety.

Universities, because they are concerned with a large slice of the young population, are, unfortunately for them, at the forefront on this issue. It is a matter on which they should try to act together because individuals or single institutions suffer disproportionately if they go it alone. The committee of vice-chancellors should start talking to drugs supremo Keith Halliwell. It should do so openly and it should involve the students. Welcome to the hot seat, Andrew Pakes, newly elected president of the National Union of Students.

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