The first ever survey of student drug use by the National Union of Students (NUS) has concluded that institutions are failing to protect students from the potential harms of drugs. The NUS recommends that drug-using students should be given advice and support instead of being disciplined.

The survey of 2810 students revealed that about two in five students are drug users. The most widely used recreational drugs were cannabis, ecstasy, nitrous oxide and cocaine. Cannabis was by far the most commonly used drug. In addition to recreational use, a small number of users used ‘study drugs’, which are intended to help people concentrate during the exam season.

More than 2000 incidents of student misconduct for possession of drugs were recorded in 2017. The usual sanction from university authorities is a formal warning, which could be escalated to a temporary or permanent exclusion. About one-quarter of incidents are reported to the police. Experts argue that such punitive action deters users from seeking help. Instead of calling the police or imposing punishments for drug-related incidents, the report says that students should be given advice and health education.

“Policy responses that focus solely on disciplining students fail to recognise the complex reasons that lead people to use drugs”, says the NUS report.

One-third of drug users claimed that they were using drugs to reduce stress; another third claimed that their mental health was worsened by using drugs.

Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said universities needed to take much greater responsibility for making students aware of the risks of drug use.

“It needs to be made far less socially acceptable. They are profoundly damaging on the minds of the young, especially those with a propensity for mental health problems,” he said.

He also called for tougher action against “pushers who are making money out of the misery of others”.

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