Universities must stop brushing the drugs issue under the carpet and start giving advice on minimising the harm associated with their use, argues Andrew Lockley
I chose my university and course for all the right reasons but, when I arrived, my immediate priority was to have a good time. For me, like the majority of my peers, this involved experimenting with drugs. My main motivation was the excitement of the forbidden and unknown, a desire created largely by the taboo and illegal status of drugs. It was not long before I started smoking cannabis instead of drinking.
Soon after this, friends started to ask me to "sort them out" when they had run out of pot. It seemed unfair to refuse a favour that I would expect from them. But this became such a regular occurrence that I had to buy a surplus to sell on. Word spreads fast in a hall of residence and soon I had several visits every evening from people hassling me for everything from acid to speed. Without trying to do so, I had become an "evil drug dealer" - public enemy number two, according to the tabloid scale of morality, one notch down from a child molester.
Personally, I think that point of view is a result of fear and ignorance, stirred up by journalists who make a living by providing people with someone to hate. I do not believe that what I did was morally wrong. Having seen the fights, accidents and regretted sex that occur when students drink alcohol, I would be prepared to bet that they take less of a risk with illegal drugs. I always tried to minimise the risk by ensuring the drugs I sold were pure, but as drug testing is not available in the United Kingdom, there was only so much I could do.
The people I sold to were all my age, they all knew what they were doing and I did not seek to encourage demand (unlike the manufacturers of alcohol and tobacco). I know that the vast majority of my customers would have bought their drugs elsewhere if I had not been dealing. most drug dealers do not create demand, they supply it. A few of my customers may have moved on to harder drugs simply because of their availability but what if they could have bought their dope from an off-licence? In that case, they would not have had the chance to try other drugs. The money they spent on marijuana would have gone to businessmen and to the government, instead of to criminals.
I stopped dealing eventually and my customers went to other suppliers. but I have continued using and studying drugs. I have worked with the university to develop its drugs information Internet page, and I attended the "Health of the clubbing nation" conference.
I believe that an important first step in tackling the student drug problem is for schools and colleges to stop brushing the issue under the carpet. Surveys, such as the one recently published in The THES, suggest that the majority of students have tried illegal drugs. The true figures may be even higher than indicated because of people's reluctance to be honest. Trying to eliminate drugs from universities and from society in general has achieved nothing. We must now change tack to make progress. As eliminating drugs is not possible, the question now is how we minimise the harm associated with drug use. To achieve that goal a more open approach is essential. Britain's universities are positioned at the forefront of drug culture and drug research and are hence well-placed to change the way we tackle drugs. Instead, many still cling to the old, unworkable system of fear of being seen as "soft on drugs". But it is the judgemental universities that are acting irresponsibly, not those that accept the realities of the situation and deal with it positively.
I agree with the opinions expressed in The THES that the policy of universities should be guided by those of the local police. A close friend of mine came home one day to find his room had been raided by the university on suspicion that he had been smoking hash. As a result he was heavily fined by a (university) court that had no defence representation and no jury. If caught by a police officer, the most likely punishment would have been confiscation or, at worst, a caution. The chances of a property search warrant being issued for use of cannabis is nearly zero.
This case is an example of how the fear of being seen as "soft on drugs" often makes universities go far beyond what the police see as necessary and appropriate. This shows a callous disregard for students' privacy and freedom and frequently makes drug users more determined than ever to continue their habit.
Despite this and other similar incidents, my university is beginning to realise the need to change. It has set up a website to provide information about drugs - an important and positive step. It is a shame, however, that practical advice is still seen as too controversial for distribution. Like millions of other drug users throughout Britain, I would love to know the answer to questions such as "What is the least harmful way to smoke cannabis?" Sadly, such information is still not readily available and students' health is being permanently damaged because of this.
Universities and government alike are refusing to give their full support to simple, cheap and effective harm-reduction measures. At the same time they profit from the sale of alcohol and tobacco, the drugs which cause more harm in Britain than any other. Attitudes and policies towards drugs in the UK are costing billions in lost tax revenue, wasted police time and preventable health problems, as well as causing anxiety and suffering to millions of people. Why can we not all stop pretending that we are on the right track?
Andrew Lockley is a final-year engineering student at a university in England.