Student by day, dealer by night

Life at university is expensive. But is the only recourse selling drugs? By Chloe Goddard
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The Independent Online
Think drug dealer, think dodgy deals on council estates, used syringes and dirty money. Or think student. While soft - and hard - drugs are now a mainstream recreation especially on the dance scene, students have been trying drugs and selling them to each other for years.

Now Greater Manchester police have decided to crack down on student drug dealing, which, they suspect, is on the increase. Under the auspices of their drugs awareness campaign, Operation Jigsaw, they have started dropping leaflets in trendy student night spots, highlighting the dangers of drugs.

Inspector Gordon Robertson, one of the officers on Operation Jigsaw, says students are a particularly vulnerable group in society: "They are brought into contact with the drugs trade through the dance scene. A lot of them are under stress to achieve results and as young people away from home for the first time they often have problems with money management," he says.

But student dealers need not expect special treatment, he adds. "We deal with all people on the merits of the case involved. We must stress that anyone found dealing drugs must be prepared to face the strongest possible sanctions," he says.

What makes intelligent, educated, ambitious people choose to sell drugs? It's common knowledge that students have no money and that the price of learning is high. But for some of these students, it can be very high indeed. As Greg Poulter, deputy director of the national drugs advice charity Release, points out, many of them are not familiar with the law and do not know that it is a crime to supply drugs to a friend.

Under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, sorting out an eighth of an ounce of cannabis for a friend, or sharing one's own with him, is supplying a class B drug. "We get a lot of calls from students who have been arrested," Mr Poulter says. He would like to see this law changed, and other drugs experts agree with him.

Roger Sharpe, who has been working with young people for 12 years at Hillingdon's Drug Education Centre, believes that as long as drugs are illegal, then there is money to be made.

"Current health research has revealed that compared to more addictive chemicals, cannabis seems to pose less of a health risk," he says. "However, it is well known that long-term use may lead to paranoia and short-term memory loss."

The National Union of Students, on the other hand, does not feel the need for a specific drug-busting strategy.

Gwilym Morris, its welfare officer, does not believe the problem is widespread. And he does not believe poverty is to blame - students can get legitimate jobs if they need them. The majority of culprits are quickly caught, often shopped by their fellow students, he says.

"We get reports of drug dealing from students who, for example, may be living on the same floor as a dealer. They don't like it."

'If it was financially worthwhile to study, I wouldn't deal'

Brian is a 22-year-old third-year student who deals soft drugs while taking a history course at a large university. He first started at the age of 18 to finance his own habit. At first it was a sideline, but when he decided to go to university he was forced to take dealing seriously. He had no financial support from his parents and his pounds 1,800 grant did not stretch very far.

"I would have had to get a job, which would have meant less time for study," he explains. "If it was financially worthwhile to study, then I wouldn't deal."

He buys four and a half ounces of cannabis a time at around pounds 325, and makes a profit of around pounds 125. The market is busiest during term time and at festive periods.

"I am careful who I sell to. I worry that I am going to get grassed up, so I keep it within several social circles."

Brian dismisses the idea that the next knock on the door could be the police. "I consider myself to be small-time. I provide a service rather than being a stereotypical pusher," he says.

But the risks involved do occasionally keep him awake at night. "It could jeopardise my career. Selling drugs is illegal. I smoke far too much, more than I would were I not dealing," he says.

But the moral aspect is not an issue. The profit margins are higher with harder drugs, but the lure of this extra money is outweighed by the increased risks of being caught.

He will only sell cannabis, but he has considered what would happen if he did get caught. A first-time offender would probably get a fine and community service, but a drugs record would mean travel restrictions and a bar to overseas residency, narrowing Brian's career options.

So far he has been lucky. "I've had a few near misses - brushes with the law. I was grassed up in a town centre pub once. The police came in and went straight to where I had been sitting with my friend. They mistook him for me and searched him. I was at the bar at the time and the police had left before I returned to my seat."

"When I finish my course I hope to emigrate and get a job. My degree will be my passport to my future."

With another year of study left he has no intention of quitting his lucrative but risky trade. The balance between drugs and study is fine. "It's more important to get my degree rather than sell gear," he explains, "but I can't do one without the other."

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