Soft drugs, hard battles

January 9, 1998

THIS seems to be the week for anonymity - a measure of how difficult it is to discuss sensitive issues openly even in our open society. On page one we carry a student's account of how he is paying his way through university by supplying fellow students with cannabis. This is illegal and both the student and his university would be in trouble if we revealed their identities.

Determination to protect the student means that, though we know he is a student, where he is studying and where he lives, and have seen his supply, we have not contacted his university for a reaction, are not saying in what area of the country he is studying and have not put him or THES reporters at risk by buying from him.

We are not in the business of exposing either individuals or institutions. We have decided to publish "John's" story only to open up the subject of drug use on campus for discussion.

There is a mass of survey and anecdotal evidence that use of drugs, particularly of cannabis, is widespread in higher education. The evidence suggests that students are more likely than the average people of their age to have used cannabis.

University authorities know this and over the years have developed ways of trying to manage the situation. They know use is widespread. They also know that many parents, in any case anxious about their children leaving home, are afraid of their offspring getting into bad habits and undesirable company. Each university and college will also have its own share of tragic cases just as it does with drunken injuries and motorbike accidents.

In today's competitive recruiting market, no university can afford to be open about drug use among its students. Each will have its own strategies based on the art of the possible, the attitude of the local police, the drug situation in the local community and other factors. The THES will not be thanked for breaking the prevailing conspiracy of silence by reporting the story of a student who we do not think is as unusual as college authorities would like to have the public believe.

Debate is needed. The present situation, like the poll tax, risks making students complacent about breaking the law. Debate is also now unavoidable thanks to the appointment of Keith Halliwell to head the government's drugs initiative, to William Straw's adventures, and to Conservative leader William Hague's concern for the drugs casualties among his former student friends. University and college authorities will inevitably be involved because of practices within their communities and because they are in the research business.

Among the issues for consideration are whether altering the law would make it possible to split cannabis use away from its present association with more dangerous drugs: whether universities should re-examine their policies towards drink as well as towards soft drugs - parents may have more grounds to worry about student drinking than pot smoking: and whether medical research yet tells us, to a reasonable level of certainty, whether or not cannabis is harmful. Do let us know what you think.

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