Tackling drug misuse in UK universities


With drug misuse in universities continuing to be a prevalent problem in universities, York Drug Science Society believe harm reduction is the way forward

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Image by York Drug Science Society

By Robyn Garner , Jak Wright and Eitan Ostashinski

Drug misuse is a common issue throughout university, with increasing rates of spiking in various cities across the country. A wealth of misinformation continues to surround the topic, as well as poor information usually stopping at “Drugs are illegal, don’t use them” throughout British education. Drugs are often portrayed as unambiguously ‘evil’, ignoring usage in medical context and often demonising addicts. York is lacking appropriate action compared to other universities across the country such as Cambridge, Bristol, Newcastle and Manchester. These universities are providing drug testing kits and training on their usage. Despite the current lack of action, there are those looking to change this.

York Drug Science Society (previously named Psychedelics in Medicine Society) is a multidisciplinary society dedicated to educating and advocating for the medical research, safe use, science and surrounding history and culture of psychedelic and psychoactive substances. YDSS provides a space for research and discussion about these substances – with the aim of providing valuable and potentially life-saving information on safe-use. The new name reflects interest in all things psychoactive, including medical use of non-psychedelic substances like MDMA and Cannabis, as well as in the promising results that psychedelic substances such as Psilocybin and DMT have shown in recent clinical trials for treating mental illnesses such as treatment-resistant depression, addiction, PTSD and end-of-life anxiety. Furthermore, the new name allows them to widen their lens, capturing the world of prescribed drugs and non-illicit substances including SSRIs, “study drugs” and benzodiazepines. With the main goal of education and harm reduction around psychoactive substances, they seek to ensure safe use of all drugs, legal or illegal. While not condoning the latter, YDSS believes it is still important to support those who do explore such options.

Universities foster an environment where many people will explore drugs for the first time, the long sought-after independence university offers allows spontaneity and curiosity to drive decisions. A government report from 2020, “Drug misuse in England and Wales: year ending March 2020” suggests one in five people aged 16-24 report having taken a drug within the last year. This same report also shows that around one in20 report taking a class A drug during the same period of time. Often, these new experiences with drugs such as cannabis, or even lower doses of drugs like Ketamine, refute what was previously taught. With the “all drugs are always bad” rhetoric overturned, “all drugs are good and fun” is an easy road to slip onto. Suddenly, what was harmless, one-time-only fun becomes a dangerous uninformed habit. A drug may be misrepresented as a different drug, or it could be contaminated with other drugs, knowingly or by negligence. Some drugs are even dangerous in small doses. Many drugs can cause addiction, or compulsive redosing, or can impair judgement, and this is not limited to those on the wrong side of the law. Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine also all have their own form of harm to cause.

To the committee members of YDSS, harm reduction is the most important way to tackle drug misuse. After the clear failure of the war on drugs, with opioid drug fatalities in the north of England tripling in ten years, focusing on education and safety is evidently the more humane and effective approach when it is inevitable that people will continue to take drugs. Harm reduction largely involves real education about drugs, conveying what safer doses are, drug consumption practices as well as the problems with contaminated and “designer drugs” (pharmacological analogues – which may be more dangerous). The other side of harm reduction is being able to provide the necessary emergency medical care where drug usage has gone wrong, be it providing psychological care while “tripsitting”, or administering a life-saving dose of Naloxone (an opioid overdose antidote). This is especially important in environments like festivals. There area number of charitable organisations that deal with this, such as PsyCare, a team of individuals specifically trained to provide medical attention.

YDSS provides free and open-to-the-public information about harm reduction, mostly in the form of guest lectures, and related topics. Furthermore, they have begun to campaign for the University to do more for its students as other universities have done. Another major drug issue is the prevalent spiking problem. There are countless stories about spiking in York, spread by word of mouth and printed news articles from a variety of local and major outlets. You’d be hard pressed to find a York student who doesn’t know anyone who has suffered from spiking. This demonstrates the importance of harm reduction of drugs to everyone, be it to avoid spiking or to be able to aid others overdosing with life saving antidotes such as Naloxone.

Naloxone is administered through injection or nasal spray and counters the effects of opioids, and it is incredibly fast, being a lipid substance. It distributes through the body in two to five minutes, and is finished acting within 40 minutes. It is capable of returning the breathing of someone who has overdosed to a normal level within two to three minutes. A synthetic N-allyl (a group with the same structural formula) derivative of oxymorphone, it is the first opioid antagonist to completely lack agonist activity, meaning it does not bind to and activate cell receptors which cause a biological reaction. It is highly effective on most overdoses. However, the increased use of fentanyl with heroin has reduced its effectiveness, meaning it must be administered multiple times or with extreme swiftness. New techniques such as naloxone laden nanoparticles are a possible alternative. However as the antidote is still naloxone, it lacks the potency to affect molecules inclined to a certain type of opioid (mu) receptor such as fentanyl. Currently, it is the best option of reactive harm reduction we have against overdoses.

YDSS is working to provide students with education and resources to stay safe and knowledgeable. For example, next term, an event will be hosted with an instructor to teach people  how to administer Naloxone in life-threatening situations. This is particularly important in light of the rise in fentanyl contamination. As an education-based society who believe strongly in the right to education, they have organised free public talks and events about drug use, drug policy, drugs in medicine and harm reduction. A project is in the works to bring drug testing kits to the University, via the student union. Potentially this could save lives on our campus.