Campaigners call for University to abandon “ineffective” zero-tolerance drug policy


An open letter has been sent to Durham University demanding changes to the zero-tolerance drug policy it currently operates. The letter, which has been spearheaded by the campaign group Harm Reduction at Durham, wants to change the policy to an evidence-based harm reduction policy. 

The campaign group are calling on the University to create a new drug policy which is “fit for the reality of student life and fit for the sector-leading institution that Durham is” given that “62% of students use drugs at university”, according to figures from the National Union of Students (NUS).

The letter has been signed by the DSU’s Sabbatical Team, four college JCRs, five JCR executive committees and various members of the independent executive committee at St Chad’s, including its JCR President. Alongside the letter, Harm Reduction at Durham launched a petition which has gained over 200 signatures. 

The campaign group issued four demands to the University regarding drug policy. They are for the University to “treat recreational drug use as a welfare issue not a disciplinary issue”, “better publicise support for students facing substance abuse issues” including student access to trained professionals, to “allow student groups to provide educational and scientific resources to students” and to “allow student groups to provide testing kits on University property”.

“There is student agreement [that] there should be change”

Harm reduction for durham

The letter criticises the University’s current drug policy, saying that it “relies on an ineffective zero-tolerance approach, perceived by students as being based on intimidation and fear”. It says that “the threats of using sniffer dogs and room checks made during induction talks, deters students from seeking support for substance abuse issues and alienate the people most in need of help”.

The University’s current drug policy states that “any student found to be using or in possession of any controlled drugs […] on University premises will be subject to its disciplinary procedures and the police will be informed”. This policy according to the open letter means “to those inexperienced and often vulnerable freshers, it frames the collegiate system as disciplinary rather than supportive”.

Speaking to Palatinate, Harm Reduction for Durham said that “there is student agreement [that] there should be change”. They explained how the campaign emerged following frustration over the “obstacles after obstacles” the group faced in introducing drug testing and education into colleges and the DSU.

Drug testing kits finally became available this academic year, paid for by SSDP Durham, but according to the letter students’ “attempts to distribute them have been continually hampered by the University.”

“Common rooms have been barred from distributing them through their welfare services, posters advertising them are routinely taken down by staff, and, most importantly, they lack the funding to be able to match demand from the student body”, the letter explains.

“The University has committed to updating its Code of Conduct on Controlled Drugs, beginning this term with a working group set up for this task”

Jeremy cook obe

Harm Reduction for Durham argue that approach taken by the University of Bristol provides the best example of a drug policy that Durham should follow, since Bristol’s policy is “based around education […] no punishment, just advice”. 

The University of Bristol previously said that a “zero-tolerance stance is harmful and damaging” and that a “harm reduction stance is in the best interests of our student body”. Harm Reduction for Durham has since confirmed that they had received “verbal agreement from the [Durham] University that it will be dropping [their] zero-tolerance” stance.

The campaign group spoke of the University’s reluctance to change the policy, with one representative claiming that the University are “more concerned with landing themselves in hot water with the press” than promoting any change on the issue. However, they went on to say that they had “been told by staff that this is something the Council would accept, I would have the Minister for Education on the phone, I have had quite senior staff who have told me this”.

In response to the open letter, Jeremy Cook, Pro Vice-Chancellor (College and Student Experience) wrote “The University has committed to updating its Code of Conduct on Controlled Drugs, beginning this term with a working group set up for this task.  

“This group will consist of a wide range of stakeholders from across the University (including a range of student representatives including from the Students for Sensible Drug Policy). The group will review best practice across the sector […] and use an evidence-based approach to inform the development of a first draft of an amended policy.

“We are completely behind the campaign and are so thrilled to have been able to help establish it”

Students for sensible drug policy durham (SSDP)

“In the meantime, we continue to work with Humankind (County Durham’s Drug and Alcohol Recovery Service) to provide specific training and awareness sessions on alcohol and drugs, as well as promoting their support services and how to access them, for those who may need them.”

Other student groups have also supported the open letter including Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), who told Palatinate that “We at SSDP are fully committed to ending Durham University’s unsafe zero-tolerance drug policies. We have a real opportunity to become UK leaders in terms of university drug culture.

“We are completely behind the campaign and are so thrilled to have been able to help establish it. We will work closely with other student leaders including JCR presidents in the future, and hopefully we will see these policies changed soon”.

In an additional statement to Palatinate, the University reiterated its current drugs policy; “The possession of controlled drugs is a criminal offence and possession with intent to supply is a more serious offence. If individuals within the University community are found to be supplying controlled drugs, serious action will be taken”.


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