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Students say no to zero tolerance

The University of Manchester has a “strict zero tolerance policy” towards drugs. The official Accommodation webpage on Alcohol and Drug Awareness not only threatens both expulsion from halls and academic discipline, but also bears a “don’t let it be you” warning.

Studies show that harm reduction approaches to illicit drugs are not only more progressive, but far more effective in combatting addiction. The University of Bristol recently adopted such a policy, explaining that they understand students use alcohol and other drugs during their time at university. They also state on their site that they appreciate the harm an institution’s zero-tolerance stance can have “as it prevents students reaching out as they may fear being punished.”

A recent survey asked 75 students whether the University’s zero-tolerance policy would discourage them from doing drugs. 91.7% opted for the “No, I don’t care” option, showing students current levels of dissatisfaction with Manchester’s drug policy.

This same survey also revealed that 73.3% of students who participated believe a zero-tolerance policy at University is unfair. The University’s website warns students to be “aware of the dangers associated with taking drugs” so that they may make informed choices about recreational drug-taking. However, the website fails to provide any further information on how students could mitigate the risks.

An official Freedom of Information request by The Mancunion questioned the University on how much money had been spent on drug awareness, safety, and training since 2018. This question was responded to with a brief “N/A”. Likewise, the University said “N/A” in response to how much money has been collected in drug fines over the last four years.

In addition to this, The Mancunion can reveal that all students expelled from Halls for drug possession are offered an “educational course” on their first offence. However, an anonymous ResLife supervisor has revealed this course is not available prior to an offence. They told us that “currently the drug harm reduction talk is basically offered to students as a way to reduce a fine, once they are caught within halls.”

Elaborating further, they told us that they’ve “been wanting to set up a platform for sessions that are open to all students”. However the University “won’t have capacity to do this until January. “

“The idea is that I wanted a safe place for students to talk openly about their drug use with a facilitator to help. This idea has been supported by the Uni but is yet to get off the ground.”

Further statistics surrounding the disciplinary procedures for drug offences reveals that 265 students were disciplined for drug possession over a three-year period. When broken down, the numbers show that 137 students were disciplined for drug possession in the 2018/19 academic year. The statistics for 2019/20 were 81 students whilst 47 students were disciplined in 2020/21.

Over the same three-year period, 7 students were expelled from university halls for drug possession. All 7 students were expelled in the 2018/19 academic year, making it Manchester’s biggest year for drug-related sanctions.

This lack of information on drug safety and addiction is not only acknowledged by ResLife supervisors but felt strongly amongst students. 73.3% of students surveyed would not feel comfortable seeking advice about drugs or alcohol from the University, and 89.3% revealed they would not even know where or who to go to for drug or alcohol-related support or information.

The data from our survey has indicated that students feel far more intimidated to seek support from their university than they feel intimidated to do drugs, questioning the efficacy of the University’s zero-tolerance approach; an approach that also seems to be disproportionately affecting Medicine and Nursing students.

In their response to the Freedom of Information request, the University informed us that they “do not impose academic penalties (outside of expulsion) for non-academic misconduct”. They also said that “each case would be considered individually.”

Yet an anonymous nursing student has stated, “I definitely have to be more careful, as if anybody knew I was a nurse and witnessed me taking drugs on a night out with mates I could easily be could be kicked off my course”. She believes she is at a much higher risk of expulsion than students from other courses due to the “reputation a nursing student must uphold”.

Likewise, one of her peers – who has also chosen to remain anonymous – has revealed that her flat of nursing and midwifery students were given a group disciplinary hearing followed by individual meetings with academic advisors after hosting a party. Her and her colleagues were warned against engaging in “antisocial behaviour” as nurses (smoking, vaping, and drinking). She has disclosed that the academic advisor did acknowledge that these punishments often come down harsher on nurses, medical students, and midwives.

However, the University told The Mancunion that it is not official university policy to expel Medicine students for drug-related offences. They said that “there is no automatic exclusion for drugs offences; such matters would be dealt with, e.g. by Occupational Health, Fitness to Study or Fitness to Practise. Ultimately, of course, exclusion could be a possibility but each case would be considered individually.”

Recently the University of Manchester’s Students Union has launched a drug-testing scheme, where kits are available for students to collect and test their drugs to see if they are safe for consumption. However, only 23% of students The Mancunion surveyed are aware that the Student’s Union provides drug testing kits. Yet 64.9% of students would have reservations about calling an ambulance to Halls of Residence for an overdosing friend, for fear of being punished by the University.

For students seeking advice on recreational drug use, the University of Manchester’s Students Union have said this:

“Whilst we work on developing a formal harm reduction policy, we want to remind students that support is available on campus, such as the SU’s Advice Service’s harm reduction support.

With comprehensive training from Change Grow Live, the Advice Service offer a safe space for confidential support, resources, drug testing kits, and direct referrals to specialist support.

Furthermore, the Counselling Service’s confidential support has, and will continue to be, available to students who are struggling with substance abuse issues.

When contacted for comment, a University of Manchester spokesperson said:

“After consulting with our Students’ Union (SU), the University has decided to change to a harm reduction stance in relation to our approach to student drug use at University. This represents the start of what will be an ongoing and collaborative process to change and update our thinking towards drugs.”

“We believe this is in the best interests of our student body, as it reduces barriers to accessing support and advice. We understand a wholly zero-tolerance stance adds to the harmful and damaging stigma that may prevent our students accessing the plethora of support available on campus. 

“However, a harm reduction stance does not mean antisocial or criminal behaviour is acceptable. Any misconduct will still be addressed robustly through the Student Disciplinary Regulations and any student found to be involved in the supply of illegal drugs will be referred to Greater Manchester Police.” 

Following the University’s announcement, the Students Union’s Activities and Development Officer told The Mancunion:

“It’s not the end of the fight at all, that’s why I’ve been very hesitant to call this a victory because this is three months worth of lobbying. But it’s just the start.

This is just a formal commitment to review but we don’t even actually have a policy. I pray by the time I leave this Officer role that we will be able to start the 2022 academic year with a harm reduction policy that’s official and a crystal clear message for all the incoming freshers. Freshers and Halls are the main area that we’re going to be not just a counselling service but halls because we know that that’s where my students come in and that’s where they need the education surrounding drug use.

Finally, I’m ecstatic at the news, but it’s not the end of it, however I am going to remain optimistic.

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Tags: Drug Policy, drugs, expulsions, Investigations, medical students, SU Exec

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