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An injection of common sense?

Recreational drug use and Sussex’s radical, free-thinking reputation seemingly go hand-in-hand – but do rumours of drug problems among students justify the panic? ‘Get a grip’, argues one student…

© Barry Lewis/In Pictures/Corbis

The University of Sussex has always been a hotbed of radical dissent that encourages free-thinking students to challenge society’s ills. The bohemian atmosphere surrounding campus allows us to celebrate a full spectrum of Union groups ranging from the Sussex Conservative Association to the Assassins Guild.

With such choice, one could argue that Sussex really has no need for mind-altering substances. Yet if – as per its reputation – the university attracts such open, liberated souls, then for many the temptation to ‘experiment’ with drugs will be irresistible. Most, if not all students will at some point during their time at Sussex come into contact with at least one illegal substance, be it directly or indirectly. This in itself is no bad thing; the leader of the free world – Mr. Barack Obama, no less – is known to have smoked marijuana during his college days, as is the leader of the not so free world, Mr. David Cameron. The ‘don’t take drugs; drugs are bad’ argument is naïve. University has always been about more than simply obtaining a degree; it’s about establishing your independence and is perhaps the only time in your life when you feel like you can do pretty much anything. For some, that inevitably means trying drugs. But how many students are fully aware of the risks involved? How many have ever talked to Frank?

Very Few.

No; instead, people chose to talk to any Tom, Dick or Harry about the virtues of: Charlie, K, Hash and MDMA and the forgotten drug…alcohol.

It is interesting hearing the thoughts of our international students on the country’s drinking culture as some seem bemused and others positively horrified by our nation’s favourite past-time. Asha Singh, a Political Science and Philosophy student from America had this to say: ’Inviting a friend to the pub or simply having a drink on a Monday evening would insinuate a drinking problem. In the States or at least in Massachusetts, where I’m from, drinking is socially acceptable on weekends but beyond that it’s seen as suspicious’.

Also, not so very long ago the Government’s Science Select Committee said: ‘The designation of drugs in classes A, B and C should be replaced with one more closely reflecting the harm they cause’ and with this in mind named alcohol ahead of some class A drugs as the fifth most dangerous drug available.

This claim is supported by a study published in medical journal the Lancet indicated that alcohol is more harmful than heroin or crack. It ranks 20 drugs on various measures of harm, including mental and physical damage, addiction, crime and costs to the economy and to communities. Whilst tobacco and cocaine are deemed equally harmful, ecstasy and LSD are considered least damaging.

The study was co-authored Prof Nutt, the former UK chief drugs adviser who was sacked by the government in October 2009. He refused to leave the drugs debate after his dismissal and went on to form the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, a body aiming to investigate the drug issue without political interference.

Alcohol consumption around campus however is for the most part contained, the biggest danger facing most students being a raging hangover.

Though we need only cast our minds back to last year to be reminded of how potentially fatal drug abuse can be. Twenty-one year old Hester Stuart, who was studying molecular medicine at Sussex, tragically died after unknowingly taking the drug GBL. While one death is of course one too many and Hester’s sad fate should act as a stern caution to us all, such fatalities are rare and more people die each year from alcohol-related illnesses and injuries.

That is not to disregard the dangers of drug abuse and while of course there are students at Sussex with a drugs problem, they are perceived to be a minority. That is not to say, however, that there aren’t cases of people prioritising drugs ahead of other aspects of university life; this can most likely be attributed to the ease in which drugs can be obtained. Students know who to turn to and the ‘dealers’ themselves stand to make a considerable profit; one gram of Ketamine, for example, can be bought for £6-7 and sold on for £15. When you are selling one hundred grams of the stuff, that’s a lot of money.

The idea, though, that Sussex produces a bunch of drug crazed addicts, wandering from dealer to dealer in search of any drug they can get their mitts on is, it would seem, nonsense. Often, people will acquire a taste for one particular drug and rarely experiment with others. Mephedrone – a designer drug that was made illegal just around Easter, by which time its consumption had dropped – was said to be particularly popular last year. Although again it is important to stress that few students developed addictions, it did seemingly create a gloomy atmosphere around campus, leaving some with feelings of depression.

However, most individuals falling into this category seem to find ways to address the issue, be it through the university’s counselling service or other means.

Drawing attention to students drug use at Sussex could have two effects. It could hopefully educate those who pretend to know more than they do about the matter, although conversely, there is a danger it could magnify a problem, little worse at Sussex than at other university. The idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy does to a certain extent already exist, with East Slope having a reputation for being where the party’s at, which is fine so long as students don’t feel pressurised into living up to any ’expectations’ surrounding drugs.

Following a BBC investigation last year when a reporter went undercover posing as a student, security surrounding drug use on campus tightened. But for the vast majority of Sussex students who take drugs, usage is one aspect of their life; not their entire world and for others, drugs form part of the Brightonian lifestyle, the city’s electronic and dance scene giving them a platform to use amongst those of a similar mindset.

The fact however remains that to study at Sussex, one must have proved a certain level of not only academic ability but ambition and it is that ambition that allows so many students to walk away from their time at Sussex with decent degrees, again suggesting that most students know how to control their drug usage.

The potential dangers facing the students of Sussex are part of a wider problem facing the city of Brighton and Hove. Often romanticised by those attracted to its alternative scene, Brighton goes by many names, but has most recently been dubbed: ‘The Drugs Death Capital of the UK’. A report, by the International Centre for Drug Policy at the University of London, said 51 people in the city died from drug-related deaths in 2005, up from 47 the previous year. And according to a BBC article written in 2006: “Brighton and Hove has topped the centre’s annual report for drug related deaths three years in a row’”.

Students’ Union Welfare Officer, Jo Goodman, is responsible for representing Sussex students throughout drug-related disciplinary hearings. While she believes that “you would be hard pushed to find a University that doesn’t have a drugs presence”, she recognises that more needs to be done to help students make informed choices.

Last year, for example, campus’ UNISEX centre was axed as part of management’s cuts. The resource, which was jointly funded by Brighton & Hove City Council and the university, provided support, advice and information to students on drugs and other issues.

It is perhaps strange, therefore, that soon after cutting this invaluable service, the university has chosen to introduce for the first time an official drugs policy, which states that: “The university does not tolerate the use, possession or selling of illegal drugs on the campus, or in off-campus university-managed accommodation.” And so the disparity between what Sussex expects and what it is actually doing to help educate students about drug use is clear.

Yes, university students are of an age where they should be able to make informed decisions but for many students, coming to Sussex will be the first time in their young lives that they have been exposed to drugs and the university must appreciate this.

The most recent freshers’ ‘rave in the woods’ illustrates that drug usage amongst Sussex students is still prevalent and while it would be convenient for the powers that be to quote statistics and condemn drug users, doing so would be short-sighted and wrong. Instead, the university would be well advised to stay loyal to its forward-thinking roots and encourage greater awareness of the risks associated with drug abuse; not, as is easier, tarnish all drug users with the same brush. After all, the difference between occasionally smoking marijuana and snorting cocaine every weekend is huge.

Are drugs a problem at Sussex? Well the university indeed has something of a reputation and reputations aren’t born out of nothing – but then it also has a reputation for being the sixteenth best university in Europe and eighth best in the UK and you don’t get that kind of reputation by turning academics into addicts.

For confidential help and advice regarding drugs contact the University’s counselling service. E-mail: counsellingreception@sussex.ac.uk or Telephone: 01273678156

For more information on the University’s drug policy visit: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/studentlifecentre/drugs

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