When Rahim*, a first-year university student, went to a festival last year, his friends bought some MDMA from a dealer they met at a party. He was apprehensive, since he usually only buys off contacts he trusts not to cut their substances with unwanted chemicals.
So when his group stumbled across a harm reduction service, one friend decided to buy a testing kit. “Thank god he bought it, because one of the MDMA pills turned out to have meth in it,” says Rahim. “It was quite scary.”
This was Rahim’s first brush with harm reduction, an approach that emphasises non-judgmental advice and support about drugs and alcohol, with a view to limiting damage to physical and mental health. To him it made sense: “A lot of people, especially young adults, don’t educate themselves; they just go off what their friends say.”
This information gap matters because drug use is increasingly popular among young people. Rahim was already exposed to casual recreational drug use growing up in London, but at university he’s observed that it is a major part of student culture. “Ketamine is a big thing here, which I didn’t really expect, and weed and cocaine are pretty big,” he says. “My friends in the year above said that every day there was a different drug being taken in their house.”
Rahim’s experience is borne out in a 2018 National Union of Students survey in which 39% of student respondents said they used drugs, with 23% describing themselves as occasional users, and 10% regular. While the stereotype is all about party drugs, 31% of users said they used drugs to self-medicate for stress, while 22% were tackling an existing mental health condition.
Rahim now plans to use a pioneering harm reduction initiative at his university, Bristol, which is funding free drug testing kits to enable students to determine the purity of their substances. The All About Drugs campaign, run in collaboration with the students union and local charity the Bristol Drugs Project, includes talks and a drop-in advice clinic to help students to understand and limit the harms posed by drugs, including alcohol.
When Sheffield University launched a similar drugs information campaign two years ago, it met with media backlash. Alison Golden-Wright, Bristol’s director of student health, thinks this was the result of a fundamental misunderstanding. “It’s not condoning or encouraging young people, it’s about recognising the risks to mental health and wellbeing [of drug use], and that young people especially often take those risks,” she says. “We want to make sure they have the information they need to manage it. People misinterpret it as a soft approach, but it’s not – it’s a pragmatic approach.”
Bristol Drugs Project chief executive Maggie Telfer thinks harm reduction is an essential response to a flourishing illegal drugs economy. With a wider range of substances now available, each with a different effect, information can help people make safer decisions when it comes to, for example, GHB, which can be fatal unless dosage is carefully measured, or MDMA, for which strength varies wildly.
The messages her charity promotes are straightforward, but Telfer has been surprised by how many students are unaware of them. They include knowing what you’re taking; trying a small amount first to determine strength; staying hydrated – but not too much; never taking drugs alone; and not hesitating to contact medical services if something goes wrong, which some students avoid doing for fear of getting in trouble.
“We want students to spread these messages among their peers so they get embedded,” says Telfer. “If you think back to the 1980s and 90s there was a higher level of harm reduction information within those club and party communities and to some extent that’s been lost.”
The campaign launches just weeks after a spate of high profile drugs deaths at Newcastle and Northumbria universities shed light on students’ vulnerability during the pandemic. Alicia Souter, a nightlife researcher at Newcastle University, thinks harm reduction policies – which the university is now introducing – could have helped. “I think this was a stark reminder that tragic events do happen if we don’t do anything.”
Souter’s research has shown that binge drinking and drug-taking have become inextricably linked with the emotional challenges posed by the UK’s residential university model, in which young people move away from home aged 18 and are suddenly responsible for themselves.
“It’s a gateway for social experiences because of awkwardness, especially among first years who aren’t feeling at home, like they’ve not yet found a place in the new environment they’re in,” she says. “It’s about easing social anxiety, wanting to have fun and not being self-conscious.And there’s no authority figure, no parents to tell them off.”
Souter believes many universities are hypocritical when they advertise themselves as located in “party cities”, yet either turn a blind eye to student excess or introduce draconian measures. Getting the balance right is especially critical at the moment, when the pandemic is exacerbating the existing drug-taking culture. “[Students] have nothing to do, no other way to socialise than to drink in halls or find a way to get drugs,” she says. “They might not be with people they know, or who wouldn’t necessarily think to check up on each other.”
Georgia*, a Manchester University student, says this has been her experience at the university’s sociable Fallowfield campus. The main activities for lots of her peers are congregating outside in large groups or sitting in their households of 10 or so people. “Because there are no other social activities there’s lots of drinking and partying,” she says. “It’s a way to feel less alone.”
The absence of organised events where students can socialise safely is a concern for Professor Fiona Measham, chair in criminology at the University of Liverpool and co-founder of the harm reduction charity The Loop. “You lose some of the scrutiny, supervision and surveillance that comes with a night club, where you have paramedics, a harm reduction chill out zone and trained staff,” she says.
Bristol’s new project aims to fill this gap. Ruth Day, the student union officer leading on the initiative says it will help a lot of people who are worried about where to turn if their drug use becomes problematic. “Students now have a space they can go to talk about these things.”
*Names have been changed