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Drug Harm Reduction on Campus: An End to the University’s War on Drugs?

For those of us who favour a less prohibitionist stance on drug use, ongoing debates around drug policy can feel rather tedious. But in what is a refreshing drop of good news, the University of Bath has started 2022 by updating its rather antiquated drug policy and on the 13th, published a statement outlining a new, harm reduction approach to drug and alcohol use on campus.

As a concept, harm reduction refers to any effort that seeks more to ease the harm associated with drugs than merely prohibit their use. And thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Student’s Union, the Vice-Chancellor’s Office has now made a clear commitment to some of the policies advocacy groups and even some of the university’s own research associates, have been recommending for years. 

The SU in particular deserves great credit for its lobbying efforts and for securing free drug testing kits which can quite literally save the lives of UoB students.

One of the most important examples of this newfound strategy is the university’s willingness to support the SU in providing free drug-testing kits on campus. Studies have repeatedly shown the value of such efforts in preventing drug-related deaths and thanks to the SU’s successful effort to secure funding for a new partnership with the Developing Health and Independence charity (DHI), all University of Bath students will soon be able to attend drop-in sessions on Level 3 of The Student Centre every Thursday between 11:00-13:00. 

From the 10th of February, these sessions will not only give students access to drug testing reagent kits, which help keep them safe from drugs mixed with dangerous cutting agents, but will also provide a flexible and non-judgemental space where students can be open about their drug use. This is central to any effort at harm reduction. And by providing students with a less intimidating point of contact with the wellbeing services, such sessions make it easier for people who are worried about their drug use to reach out and receive whatever help or advice they need. 

The university has also restated the fact that students can always contact the wellbeing services if they are struggling with drug or alcohol use, and access free and expert advice from DHI. This, admittedly, was already the case. But the university has now made explicitly clear that any information shared with the wellbeing services regarding a student’s drug use will be treated as confidential. This is important because, alongside the threat of disciplinary action, it is not always easy for students in need of help to disclose their drug use in university counselling sessions for example. But with assurances that students seeking support will not be referred to the disciplinary board, it will only become easier and less daunting for students to access help should they need it. 

Whilst there is always room to improve, the University of Bath deserves recognition for taking its first step away from the puritan and ultimately counterproductive war on drugs.

There is, of course, still room to improve. The disciplinary guidelines still emphasise that a second instance of drug possession will be “processed as misconduct that may also be a criminal offence” for example. And the Fitness to Practise policy continues to threaten students on professional courses with a regulatory review should they be caught using recreational drugs – only adding to the stress of studying some of the university’s most intense courses.

But all in all, this is a commendable step in the right direction. The SU in particular deserves great credit for its lobbying efforts and for securing free drug testing kits which can quite literally save the lives of UoB students. (Special mentions go to last year’s SU President Franci, SU Community Officer Meg and this year’s SU President Annie.) And despite a somewhat frustrating delay, we can be proud to attend a university that is open to evidence-based policy proposals. 

This is especially true given our conservative government’s recent doubling down on prohibition, not to mention the opposition’s refusal to support efforts to decriminalise even the most pedestrian forms of drug use. Given this context, this is an impressive shift in policy. And whilst there is always room to improve, the University of Bath deserves recognition for taking its first step away from the puritan and ultimately counterproductive war on drugs.

Sonny Loughran

As the current Features Editor, Sonny tries to squeeze in stories about the UK's strangest groups — be it real-life witches or Bath's swinger community.

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