Cannabis on campus - repression is no answer

Thousands of students use drugs regularly. Are universities doing enough to inform them of the dangers of taking drugs - and of getting caught - or are they sweeping the issue under the carpet, asks Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online
Earlier this year the vice-chancellors' committee hosted a conference on drug use in universities. The conference was organised by Release, the drugs' advice organisation, and was closed to the press. The gathering was important because it brought together an academic with controversial views, as well as the managers of student services and student representatives to discuss what could be done about drug misuse on campus at a time when society's attitudes are changing.

The academic was Professor Heather Ashton of Newcastle University, who has been researching the topic for decades and takes an unfashionably tough line on drug use. She thinks universities don't do enough. They should all agree on a national policy and stick to it. "It's hard for students to get help," she says. "But it's up to university students to set a good example of obeying the law even if they don't agree with it."

Unlike many experts, Professor Ashton believes that the soft drug cannabis is harmful. It can be physically addictive, she says. It can affect the brain and cause lung cancer. One of its most serious side-effects is on people's ability to drive safely. It can also impair memory and co-ordination. She believes universities should make it crystal clear what the rules are - that the use of hard and soft drugs is not tolerated - and enforce them. "Universities should be tough," she says. "They should set an example. Students are in a privileged position. Presumably born with brains - they should use them."

Unfortunately, many of them don't, according to Ashton. Her research, which is now out of date so the figures could be higher, shows that 20 per cent of students smoke cannabis regularly - once a week or more. As many as one-third use other illicit drugs. And their use of drugs begins way before they come to university: almost one-half (46 per cent) start taking drugs at school.

Universities are in a bind over drugs. Because drug taking - including smoking the odd joint - is illegal they are expected to enforce the law. But they know drug laws are more observed in the breach than the obedience. They must also be aware of the growing campaign for decriminalisation of cannabis and of the latest police attitudes concerning simple cannabis possession: many forces don't prosecute for a first offence.

Taking a hard line with students - showering them with information about the dangers of drugs - may be counterproductive. "It's not all that easy," says Professor Graham Zellick, vice-chancellor of London University. "We put out literature. You can't treat them as children. They react against it. You don't have the opportunity that you have in schools to preach at them all the time and exhort them. You can only put out information from time to time. I think most of us do that. But we do it in relation to all the potential pastoral problems we're aware of. Students are under a lot of pressures these days and succumb to lots of temptations."

All of which explains the low-key - some would say ostrich-like stance - of many in higher education. They wish the issue would go away. Some universities are reluctant to do much in the way of information campaigns - or broadcasting their concern - for fear of being seen as druggy institutions. Universities with a reputation for drugs put the parents off. So, they keep quiet. Occasionally they have to crack down - and to some people that action is seen as startlingly harsh.

Take the case of a final-year engineering student at Birmingham University who earlier this year wrote a thoughtful article in The Times Higher Education Supplement and found himself suspended by the university weeks before his final exams. In the article he admitted to using and supplying cannabis in the past but said he had now stopped dealing. He had done nothing wrong, he argued. He always tried to ensure the drugs he was selling were pure; he did not seek to encourage demand; and his customers were his age and knew what they were doing.

"As eliminating drugs is not possible, the question now is how we minimise the harm associated with drug use," he wrote. "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, universities were unwilling to give harm-reduction advice, he wrote.

Instead of engaging in the debate the student was seeking, Birmingham reported him to the police. The police decided to take no action. But the university suspended him. "He claimed to have broken the law and we couldn't ignore that," says Frank Albrighton, director of external relations. "The fact that he was dealing certainly made a difference."

Professor Ashton approves of Birmingham's handling of the case. "A law is a law," she says. "The young man was spreading harm to vulnerable people. I think one just has to be tough. Universities can't turn a blind eye. I think it's a privilege to be in higher education and students have more responsibility than the man in the street."

Arguably, Birmingham is more sensitive to drug offences than other universities because in 1995 a student died from sniffing heroin. It has tried to mitigate the effect of its action in the most recent case by giving the student access to the campus to complete the work needed for his engineering degree, according to Albrighton.

But its strong action against the young man is condemned by Greg Poulter, deputy director of Release, who says the university should have distinguished between commercial and non-commercial dealing. "If the student was not dealing for profit, the university has made a good effort at ruining his career," says Poulter. "They have also tried to get him into prison by involving the police. I don't think that's an appropriate response to non-commercial supply of cannabis."

Mr Poulter also takes issue with Professor Ashton over the dangers of cannabis, though he agrees with her that students need more information. There is plenty of research to show that the drug does not have the damaging effects she claims. While acknowledging that the drug has health risks, he says the normal recreational, occasional use of cannabis has fewer health risks than, say, tobacco.

Release is one of a number of organisations that has been trying to improve people's knowledge of drugs. Recently it organised a nationwide campaign of drugs training under the slogan "Study Safely". And the National Union of Students has produced an information pack in association with the University of Brighton.

Last year the vice-chancellors' committee took action - though not as much as Professor Ashton would like. It issued guidelines advising universities to draw up policies for dealing with drug abuse and to make these known to students. It advised universities to give out information about the hazards of different drugs and to encourage those who did abuse drugs to consult support networks.

The vice-chancellors' approach is pragmatic. And it stops short of recommending a national policy to which all universities should adhere, as Professor Ashton wants, because the CVCP does not have such power. Universities are autonomous institutions. They argue that what is good in one will not necessarily work in another.

At Liverpool, for example, the university has concentrated not on a policy that goes out to students but on procedures for dealing with drug abuse. It has also put effort into training staff to deal with drug abuse. "We have done a lot of drug awareness sessions for staff," says Pamela Bell- Ashe, Liverpool's assistant registrar (student services). "We felt there was misinformation around about drugs. We wanted to give staff accurate information and take some of the fear away.

"Before we started there was a lot of fear. People were scared stiff. In the residences every time there was a disciplinary problem people assumed it was to do with drugs when it wasn't. This meant they were often frightened to deal with people. If somebody's drunk, people know what to do because they're familiar with alcohol and its effects. But if somebody's taken something else, they don't know what to do. We have said `This is how you deal with situations. It doesn't matter what they've taken. You deal with the situation you've got.' That's been very effective."

Liverpool has also run an information campaign, which involved issuing leaflets about the risks of drugs and the risks people face if caught. It has been a tough/tender approach, balancing warnings with advice about where to go for help.

One of the problems with taking too tough a line on drugs, particularly in a society which has become so tolerant of them, is that students simply don't listen or indulge their habit elsewhere. American attempts, for example, to drive alcohol off campuses by banning it have not been entirely successful. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students have switched to drugs instead because they have been easier to come by. However universities view drug-taking, especially soft drugs, simple repression appears not to be the answer.