Drug use: Is Sheffield Students’ Union right to offer advice?

​Drug use: Is Sheffield Students’ Union right to offer advice?

Drug use: Is Sheffield Students' Union right to offer advice?

​Ray Lakeman is only too aware of the effect of illegal drugs.

​His two sons Jacques and Torin died after they took ecstasy together four years ago.

​Now, the dad is advocating a more open approach to tackle the issue of illegal drug use - an approach that has seen Sheffield Students' Union hit the headlines in recent days.

​The union has been publishing advice on how to take illegal drugs safely.

​"I think it's acknowledging what's going on and trying to keep students safe. It's realistic," says Mr Lakeman.

​"I don't condone drug-taking but I know it happens. Universities need to be open and honest."

'Things changed'

​Mr Lakeman's sons took ecstasy together after travelling to Manchester to watch a football match.

​Torin was 19 and in his second year at Aberystwyth University at the time. His brother was a year older and working in London.

​Mr Lakeman knew his eldest son had been dabbling in drugs but believes Torin had only tried drugs after starting university.

​"If it happened to Torin when he was so opposed to drugs in the past it can happen to anyone," he says.

​"I think things changed for him when he went to university. I think it was just a way of fitting in and coping."

​But should universities instead be focusing on stopping students taking drugs in the first place?

​The guidance provided by Sheffield Students' Union - such as how to take safe dosages and how much water to drink - comes from the Loop, an external organisation which runs initiatives to reduce the harm caused by drugs.

​The union's welfare officer Katharine Swindells denies the approach is normalising or promoting drug use.

​"Although drugs misuse is of course not condoned at Sheffield, we have to be realistic that some students will experiment with drugs," she says.

​"We have a responsibility to ensure that if a student does choose to take drugs they are as informed as possible and know how to take all reasonable precautions."

​A spokesman for the University of Sheffield echoed the union's position.

​However, National Drug Prevention Alliance spokesman David Raynes says the union's advice is "normalising drug taking".

​"It creates a climate where there's an expectation that students will use drugs. And that is bad because we'll then get to a climate where more students take drugs rather than less," he says.

​He believes "social pressure and peer pressure" - like that which saw a significant decline in smoking at the beginning of the 21st Century - is needed to deter students from taking illegal substances

​While many drug awareness charities do offer advice to people who are going to take drugs they also emphasise the "safest thing to do is not take drugs at all".

​Around two in five students use illegal drugs, a recent survey by the National Union of Students (NUS) suggests.

​The most widely used drug is cannabis, followed by ecstasy or MDMA, nitrous oxide and cocaine.

​Rob Noon, an officer at the NUS, said a range of support and information should be provided to help students who use drugs to make more informed choices.

​Punitive measures rarely helped potentially vulnerable students from seeking help and support "at the very time they need it," he says.

'Drug-free campus'

​Buckingham University has taken a different approach.

​It aims to be the UK's first drug-free campus and plans to ask students to sign contracts promising not to take illegal substances on its premises.

​Two years ago the university also started inviting police sniffer dogs on campus in a crack-down on drugs.

​But vice-chancellor Sir Anthony Seldon insists the policy is focused on the welfare of students rather than being punitive.

​"We are not looking to throw anybody out with a drug problem but to give them help to get off it.

​"It's based upon the fact that if you are part of a university where drugs taking isn't the norm you are much less likely to take them."

​He says while he isn't opposed to providing students with advice about how to take drugs safely he felt there were better ways to tackle the issue.

​"That approach seems to be admitting there's a problem but trying to limit the damage rather than addressing the cause.

​"It should be coupled with a real drive to say we really do not think drug-taking is necessary."

​He admits the university is unlikely to "stamp drugs out altogether" but hoped tackling the social acceptability would significantly reduce drug-use on campus.

​But Ms Swindells says students also need to be made aware of the risks if they do choose to take drugs.

​"Providing advice doesn't promote drug use," she says. "It keeps people safe."

Leave a Reply