By Emma Reeves
Clubbing and partying during your time at university inevitably means some sort of contact with the drug culture that pervades much of extra-curricular life. The University of Leeds places consistently high (https://thetab.com/uk/2017/03/30/most-popular-drugs-university-uk-36526,https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/ppxd3b/uni-drug-taking-345) in drug usage rankings, with 82% of 8000 students surveyed admitting to illegal drug use. Leeds with its multitude of students and universities has held a reputation as an eclectic party city, consistently in the top ten universities for nightlife. Despite this, there is little formal recognition of this drug culture by the university in any kind of campaign. I have heard many students anecdotally report ambulances turning up at “the majority of” house parties they attend. You do not have to converse with many students to hear of occasional catastrophic consequences including hospitalisation, psychiatric morbidities and, on the rare occasion, even death.
Fairly recently, I was at a house party where I had been the only person with a shred of an idea of what to do (as I am training to deal with these situations within a medical degree) when someone had collapsed from a drug overdose. Having to be faced with distraught friends of an individual who I knew nothing about, whilst monitoring the collapsed person’s almost imperceptible breathing, and then communicating a potential overdose of a valium, ketamine and GHB to a 999 operator was, understatedly, stressful. Another alarming thing I had observed from the night was the dismissive attitude of his friends, who said: “he does this every weekend, leave him on the pavement”. I later found out that this individual was mechanically ventilated for two days. At this point I understood that this really is a culture, an integral part of our society. A norm. The dismissal by friends underpins this - collapsing from drug use is inherently ordinary to this subsection of students. So why are the university not stepping up sufficiently to acknowledge this problem?
Undeniably, students and young people alike do and will always take illicit drugs. However, in recent years, the media has documented a rise in the abuse of different, more potent kinds of drugs - some purer than authorities have ever seen before. This has been seen with the likes of MDMA (ecstasy). Notably, last year a Sheffield student named Joanna Burns died as a result of “super-potent” eighth of a gram of MDMA. This resulted in the incarceration of two other students for supplying her with the drug and consequently woeful aftershocks on the student community, family and friends. This phenomenon of students supplying and dying from drug use is not limited to Sheffield. In 2018, a University of Leeds student was sent to prison for supplying ketamine, cocaine and LSD from his Lupton room to “fund tuition fees”. Similarly, deaths have also occurred closer to home. In 2014, a Leeds Dental School student died after taking ketamine and heroin following her finals. Rather than seek medical attention as she struggled for breath, her friends abandoned her behind bins at the rear of their property, effectively snuffing out any chance of survival. Similar situations have been documented time and time again, most recently in the media storm surrounding the case of Louella Fletcher-Michie. She was left to die by her boyfriend at Bestival after ingesting the psychedelic 2CP. He feared imprisonment after supplying her with the drug and refused to gain medical attention despite her begging him for help. A culture of isolation remains when cases like these rear their heads, inevitably provocating the issue and causing further devastation. There is a tendency to look at these cases as a “one off”, rather than identify, research and address the wider reasons behind the current culture. At the centre of this is a fear of reprimand outstripping the need for medical attention - if we continue to engender this at university, the wake of death and trauma surrounding drugs will continue by rote.
In an attempt at harm reduction following the tragic death of Joanna Burns, Sheffield University Union (SUU) published a document on ‘taking drugs safely’, with a link to ‘The Loop’, an initiative involving testing of drugs and reports on local known batches of drugs with adverse effects. It is an initiative that is encouraging harm reduction amongst drug taking behaviours. Instead of being heralded as a progressive, health protective scheme, this advice was quickly revoked after extensive backlash from major newspapers. SUU was accused of ‘encouraging’ the use of illicit drugs and normalising drug culture. Although it is important for institutions not to condone drug taking, the idea behind informing and educating students about safe drug taking should be strongly embraced. Waking up to the reality that prohibition will not halt the tide of student drug use and using effective education programmes would be a far more enlightened approach. This prohibitive, one line “zero tolerance” attitude without further information or guidance is at best, ignorant. At worst, it is irresponsible. Scouring Google and the Leeds University Union website, I found no comprehensive document or policy from the university around drug use apart from the increasingly repetitious “we have a no tolerance approach to drug use”. In the context of an increasingly litigious society where prestigious educational institutions cannot be seen to be tolerating drug use, this is somewhat comprehensible. Acceptable? I would argue not. I would challenge anyone in charge of drugs policy at the university to look into the face of an overdosing student as he struggles for every breath and tell me this approach is justifiable.