By Samuel Peckett
As the University of Manchester’s Students’ Union begins to offer drug-testing kits to students, aAh! investigates whether this is a step in the right direction, and what else can be done to improve drug safety.
A recent survey carried out by the National Union of Students has shown that 56% of students have taken drugs, with just under two-fifths currently taking them. The study, labelled the first comprehensive UK-wide research into student drug use, suggests a normalisation of drug culture and use in student populations around the country. In an attempt to try to reduce the harmful potential of drug use, the University of Manchester’s Students’ Union has recently followed Newcastle and Sussex in the introduction of drug-testing kits, available at their Student Advice Service. The kits, which cost a suggested donation of £2.50, allow tests to be done by students themselves to check the substances within a drug and is completely independent from the University.
The Manchester Students’ Union’s information on substance use comes with a heavy disclaimer: the Union cannot accept responsibility for the accuracy of the tests or any adverse reactions, consequences or damage as a result of using the kits. They also mention that they do not advocate taking drugs, as taking drugs is never safe.
The disclaimer is expected: the balance between harm-reduction and promotion of drug taking is a difficult one for a university to get right. The University of Sheffield Students’ Union was recently criticised after their website offered instructions and guidelines on how to take drugs safely, which critics argued was dangerous and normalised drug culture. When a student died at Sheffield’s Tuesday Club in 2017 after taking MDMA, however, the Union believed further education was required. Students were directed to external advice from the drug welfare and harm reduction group The Loop, a non-profit Community Interest Company. Included in the advice was ‘start low, go slow’ and information on how to prepare MDMA and appropriate dosages. Media coverage suggested the Union was condoning drug use; the Union countered that they were simply taking precautions to reduce risks.
With harm-reduction in student populations clearly proving to be a sensitive topic, aAh! spoke to Guy Jones, Senior Scientist at The Loop, about drug-testing kits at universities and future plans for the company.
Jones said, “My concern is that a lot of the harm isn’t necessarily coming from the fact that it’s the wrong substance,” he said. “Especially in the last three years, a lot of problems have arisen from the substance being too pure and the user not being prepared for that. The drug-testing kits eliminate the chance of one of the worst case scenarios, which is where you get a different drug and it has a horrible side effect, but it doesn’t address the issues with too pure substances being on the market.”
Greater Manchester’s Drug Alert Panel stated that current MDMA and ecstasy tablets are stronger than ever before, which led to the deaths of over 60 people in England and Wales in 2016.
He added, “Where I would argue that the kits are greater than the sum of their parts is in raising awareness of the fact the service user has a big role to play in their own safety,” he went on. “This is not Russian roulette, as much as the police love that line. People do have a lot of control over the risks they’re exposed to: they can test their substance, weight it, and make sure other medications they’re on won’t interact with it.
“I would say the testing kits should never be given out without access to good information: proper signposting, leaflet explaining key risks of the drug, how to minimise those risks, a site you can go to for more information, where to access services in your city and who to talk to for more information.”
JUST SAY NO
Drug education at schools offering advice such as ‘Just Say No’ and shock and scare approaches have had a limited effect. Over half of students in the NUS survey confirmed they had taken drugs, and 62% demonstrated relaxed attitudes toward student drug use. The majority of respondents – around 84% – said they do not feel pressured to take drugs at college or university. Despite this, the University of Buckingham drew up plans asking students to sign contracts promising not to take drugs on its property. The University’s information on student welfare says they operate random room inspections using a ‘drug detection dog’, but assure students they will be as ‘non-intrusive as possible’.
Jones believes this zero tolerance approach will not be successful: “We’ve tried abstinence based approaches: they get people pregnant, they result in drug deaths. It’s just not an effective strategy. If I recall correctly, the contract [at the University of Buckingham] says ‘no drugs on campus’, which is the beginning of a large number of holes that I could pick out in what I regard as a silly, pointless, unhelpful and counterproductive policy.
“It’s a head in the sand approach from a commissioner who doesn’t really know what’s happening on the ground. I don’t think for a second even a majority of students use drugs other than alcohol, but I do think that it’s a significant minority and turning your back on those people is irresponsible at best.”
The Loop have their own plans for drug testing at universities. They use infrared spectroscopy to compare the substance’s absorption spectrum, which is linked directly to its chemical structure, to a huge database with extreme accuracy. It allows them to find out exactly what is in a substance. Their portable lab has been used at a variety of festivals, including Manchester’s Parklife Festival, and has seen them awarded a range of accolades.
The Loop’s Director, Fiona Measham, confirmed to aAh! Magazine that The Loop is planning to introduce lab standard forensic testing for students in at least one university this autumn term.
Jones discussed their upcoming work in further detail: “Keep your eyes peeled on The Loop’s activities because if I had to guess, the city based testing will be making an appearance before the end of the year.
“The form I expect that it will take is very similar to our festival testing service, except it’ll be based out of a building which will be nice for me, I won’t have to be in a muddy field!
“People will come over, drop off a sample and come back later once it’s analysed. This is obviously a much higher standard of testing, but also gives access to drug education, as results cannot be collected without talking to a healthcare professional. They’ll talk to the specialist for 15-20 minutes, talking through medications they’re on, other medical issues they have, any other drugs they might be planning to take and what the associated risks are with this particular substance. The expert will take the information they’ve received and apply to their expertise to identify risks and three key things to minimise those risks. We want to give people more than just test results. My experience has been that people are really keen for this information.”
Students for Sensible Drug Policy
The Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) is a worldwide organisation aiming for drug policy reform. Their Newcastle division were responsible for the introduction of drug-testing kits at the University of Newcastle. We caught up with Ashleigh McLean, their President, to speak about kits that they currently have available.
“It’s not the Union or the University that’s providing the kits,” she said. “We’re doing it separately and selling those to the students as required.
“We advise students before they use them that it won’t tell them all the impurities that are in a substance, but our general thought is that they were going to take the drug and now they have an extra line of defence, so it’s still safer.”
The drug-testing kits aren’t the only thing on offer. As mentioned by The Loop, education on drug use and its effects is important too. SSDP in Newcastle agree: “We host fortnightly discussions and we call them Say Know Discussions. We get together with a specific drug as the topic and talk about that drug openly for an hour, trying to self-educate, having done some background research on the history, variations, the effects and the interactions.
“The tests also come with advice on how effective the tests can be, a card for a local harm reduction drugs charity, general advice about catching diseases such as hepatitis C, and the risks of sniffing drugs. There’s advice for people to use clean tools and a list of resources they can go to such as [drug education and harm reduction sites] Erowid, TripSit and The Loop.”
Ashleigh believes drug education is important for all, not just those who use drugs: “When I first went to uni, I was absolutely terrified of the drug culture. I was in a flat with lots of recreational drug users in first year and my fears created quite a toxic environment, but if I’d had more understanding, maybe I wouldn’t have been as frightened. Education needs to go to the people who are intending to and considering using, and also to the people who are not.”
Drug-Testing Kits at More Unions
As the University of Manchester introduces drug-testing kits and The Loop announce their own drug-testing at universities, the NUS have announced that an increasing number of unions are asking about drug-testing kits.
Jones believes this is a positive move, but drug education needs to continue to move forward: “The testing kits are very valuable when used and given out correctly, but they can’t be the only thing that’s done.”