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Should the legislation around drug use be changed?

As a society, we are past stuffing our ears with cotton balls and cowering our eyes. Like it or not, it’s time to acknowledge the harsh reality – students use drugs. Furthermore, it’s somewhat normalised.

NUS in collaboration with Release carried out a survey that is the largest cross-campus study to date into the views of students with regards to drug use. The nation-wide campaign gathered 2810 responses from students around the country. 56% of respondents either use drugs or have used them in the past. Furthermore, 62% of responders hold relaxed attitudes towards drugs.

Evident from this research carried out, is that while drug use is somewhat normalised among students, possession of drugs is a criminal offence in the UK. 210 respondents have encountered the criminal justice system as a result of their drug use, 10% of those arrested.

Similarly, the survey found that there was some level of awareness among respondents of their university’s drug policy, however, not significantly high, where a ‘zero tolerance’ disciplinary-based on student’s awareness, would be effective. From this arises a wider question – in a city, where most of its population consists of students, wouldn’t following Portugal’s example and decriminalising drugs be a logical course of action?

Jules Christie, a rehab worker in the drug and alcohol field, with 13 years of experience in Newcastle and Gateshead has expressed her critique towards the current systems put in place in support of those struggling with drug abuse:

“I think the way we support drug users needs to be explored. What we tend to do is to offer a substitute prescription of Methadone [to heroin users] and it sort of ‘parks’ that individual. They are then unable to move forward. They then could be on Methadone treatment for quite a while before they feel ready or before the prescribing practitioner feels that they are ready, often they are just contained on methadone, which isn’t really helpful for that individual. And I think it might have a negative impact on their motivation and aspiration. I think we definitely need to look at other ways to support people.”

Portugal decided on decriminalising possession of all drugs in 2001, shifting towards more health rather than punishment centred approach to its drug problem. The shift in attitudes came from acknowledging that criminalising and marginalising of drug users was further contributing to the broader issue. As reported by Transform the decriminalisation has led to a decrease in HIV infections and drug-related deaths. Interestingly, Portugal hasn’t experienced a rise in drug use and drug use has declined among those aged 15-24.

© Transfom

Activist Widney Brown recently wrote in a blog post for Drug Policy Alliance: “It is stigma, not drug use that is placing people’s lives at risk. Endocarditis isn’t caused by drug injection – it’s caused by unsterile syringes and unregulated drugs.

Dr Jane Watson from Sheffield House Surgery explains the fear and stigma that students might encounter:

“I think students are well aware (..) that whilst that they know what they say in a consultation is confidential and goes no further they are aware that these things go on a record therefore they don’t like to come in and share information like that because, you know, when you’re that age and you’ve got job interviews and things coming up, I think if there is a history of drug misuse on your medical record and you got to go through occupational health (…) I think it is a bit of a brier. ”

In her professional opinion, when asked specifically about student drug use in Newcastle and potential reasons for it, she states:

“I think it peer pressure, isn’t it? And that environment is the problem. But I think with students it’s different. It starts recreationally as a ‘thing that people do’ but then it can become a problem. If you are the type of personality if you have more of a tendency to become a regular user or be the type of person, who uses substances to cope with stress or problems in your life. It all depends on the person you are.”

In contrast to Dr Watson’s opinion, the NUS survey found that 84% of students said they don’t feel pressured to take drugs at university.

Christie noted that drug and alcohol abuse in the North East could be attributed to misinformation. Therefore, the approach of creating a safe, non-judgemental environment, where patients are positively challenged is critical to a person’s recovery.

Christie said:

“Young people have pre-ideas about drug and alcohol services, so harm reduction is usually a good way to explore that individuals use and encouraging reflection on their behaviour and choices. And promote techniques to keep them safe.”

Harm reduction programs are the current and only response to recognising that drug use is a personal decision made by an individual. A useful and student endorsed harm reduction tool is the practice of using drug testing kits. At the Newcastle University, they were first made available by the SSDP society for £3. In the past few years, the support for the organization has reduced.

Dr Watson spoke out in support for encouraging students to practice safer drug use and use drug testing kits:

“We treat people medically prophylactically with medication to help problems. If a person or a young person is making an informed decision to use a drug, they’re not dependent on it, but using it recreationally then I would fully support the use of [drug testing kits] to avoid them coming into any trouble.”

The NUS survey found that 80% of students use drugs for recreational purposes.

Unfortunately, widely the use of drug testing kits is not supported by treatment facilities by making these kits accessible to those struggling. However, Christie noted that:

“We don’t particularly promote the use of drug testing kits when we offer our treatment and support, but we do signpost people to where they can get drug testing kits from.”

During the interview, Christie referred to a useful tool for combating stigma, shame and fear associated with those using drugs – to refer to these individuals without using any of the degrading labels often presented in the mainstream media. Instead of calling someone a ‘drug addicted’ it is a lot more counterproductive to refer to these individuals as ‘drug dependent’.

Dr David Nutt spoke more about the dangers that the press coverage holds over the stigmatised perception of drug users in his lecture on addiction at Newcastle University last year:

“I’m continuously fighting with newspapers not to use [derogatory] terms. Challenging to tell the truth. (..) It’s overwhelming how totally lacking integrity is reporting around [drug use].”

An example of irresponsible reporting is the Leah Betts’s case. The harsh reality around this case is that the media reporting suggested that the victim had passed away due to the use of ecstasy. Dr Nutt notes that this was not the case. If the victim had been made aware of the potential effects that ecstasy has on a human’s body (in this case feeling of dehydration), the victim could have avoided drinking 7l of water in less than 90 minutes that then led to hyponatremia and finally swelling in the brain and coma. Dr Nutt confimrs:

“Ecstasy didn’t kill her. It didn’t help either. People know what to expect with alcohol, not so much with drugs. It didn’t matter. This was an example. Tell the world that ecstasy kills people.”

Dr Nutt also noted that in the press it is widely perpetrated that “alcohol is not a drug when obviously, it is”. Therefore further leading to the assumption that drinking alcohol is socially acceptable, while simoteniosly perpetrating guilt amongst drug users.

Dr Barbara Sahakian told the Independent:

“If it is, then let them license it, and maybe sell it in Boots, and have people have the usual information about the side effects and then they can also go to their GP before they take it.”

While there are clear benefits to decriminalising drugs and there are real case studies that support these theories, Christie put it best:

“It’s a really tricky subject, I think it’s not as clear-cut as offering individuals a prescription heroin. We have to really look at the situation and their needs.”

After all, any change in the legislation should be first and foremost considered with taking into an account the effects these changes would have on patients and drug users. But one thing is clear, it is important to always stay on the safe side and approach any decision with caution.

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