By Ben Sladden
With its winding cobbled streets, Cathedral, and “tame” 2 a.m. nightclub closing time, Durham feels far removed from the bright lights of cities such as Manchester and Leeds.
“Dulham” is how Vice pejoratively labelled the University a few years ago.
Nevertheless, Estia Ryan, a second-year St Mary’s student heading the newly ratified Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), spoke to Palatinate about how she sees things changing.
Speaking about the drug scene in Durham, she said: “It’s exploded; it’s always in my face. I think that drugs are everywhere.
“You can see that it can quickly become an issue for a lot of people here.”
Advocating for the safe use of drugs is clearly a deeply personal issue for Estia. She spoke of growing up in London and witnessing close friends overdosing on drugs.
SSDP is an American organisation but has “chapters” across the world. It advocates for a focus on reforming policy, and education around drugs.
According to a nationwide survey of 11,000 people by The Tab, 77% of Durham students have taken some form of illegal drug.
The University’s drug policy, however, is unambiguous about its zero-tolerance approach to illegal substances.
Tucked away in the University’s Codes of Practice is their position: “The University will not tolerate the use of, or dealing in, controlled drugs on its property.
“Any students found to be using or in possession of any controlled drug, including cannabis, on University premises will be subject to its disciplinary procedures and the police will be informed.”
Estia claims, however, that she has been in discussion with representatives of the University who are seeking to re-draft their drug policy this academic year, with the planned input of student focus groups.
Other British universities have also taken steps in reforming their drug policies.
Newcastle has softened its zero-tolerance approach following campaigns by the SSDP chapter there, which called on the university to prioritise welfare and medical concerns over deterrence.
Similarly, the University of Manchester has introduced a health-based policy.
These two universities, as well as Sussex University, have lent their ear to the arguments of those arguing for “harm reduction”, and have allowed the distribution of drug-testing kits through their students’ unions.
These kits allow drug samples to be tested for their contents.
However, critics have pointed out these relatively cheap test kits only identify the predominant substance, and do not flag up the presence of smaller quantities of adulterants.
Numerous recent teenage drug deaths have been linked to the presence of adulterants, such as PMA – a dangerous, cheaper substitute for the MDMA found in Ecstasy pills.
SSDP-Durham is currently seeking grants in order to be able to bulk buy drug-testing kits for distribution to students.
However, Estia concedes that negotiations with the University to allow for the distribution of these kits through the Students’ Union is “going to be really hard to sell”.
More fundamentally, what Estia and SSDP-Durham plan to do is provide better education around drug use.
Estia suggested that this could make up for the lack of information around drugs in Durham.
The Students’ Union currently provides no information on illegal drugs on their website.
Clara Senior, Head of Welfare for St Cuthbert’s Society, said that although Freps and Welfare Officers are given training in dealing with drug abuse, this is reactive: the training is put in place so that “when people do talk to us we can provide them with the resources they want in a non-judgemental way”.
“We don’t really have much information given out to Freshers specifically about drugs,” she stated.
This was echoed by Karl Wilkinson, Welfare Officer at St John’s, who said “there hasn’t been much” regarding drug education beyond an alcohol and drug awareness session usually run in Epiphany term.
Fiona Measham is Professor of Criminology at Durham and a national expert on harm reduction.
She spoke to Palatinate about the need for universities to do more regarding the use of drugs.
“To address this, I would like to see a greater focus on alcohol and other drug (AOD) harm reduction both during freshers’ week and also across the academic year.”
She spoke of her desire to “introduce staff drugs awareness and harm reduction training, and also periodic pop-up labs to raise awareness of variations in drug markets”.
As part of her work as Director of The Loop, a charity advocating for drug safety and harm reduction, drug-testing stalls were introduced in a handful of UK music festivals this summer.
The scientific tests that were carried out allowed festival punters to ascertain the strength of their drugs, alongside the presence of adulterants and contaminants.
The Loop’s campaigners claimed this often helped pre-empt possible dangers by flagging up any dangerous batches.
This has been seen as paramount in a year in which news headlines have featured stories on fluctuations in the strength of drugs, with “super-strength” Dutch MDMA pills flooding the British market.
The attitudes in Durham, more widely, however, seem to be changing. Those championing harm reduction have not been limited to the academic community.
Durham’s Police, Crime and Victims’ Commissioner, Ron Hogg, is a keen advocate for reform, promoting what he calls “evidence-based policing”.
His police force has hit headlines in recent months with its revolutionary approach to the problem of heroin use.
It was announced earlier this year that Durham Constabulary would be the first English police force to provide designated “shooting galleries”, where heroin users would be provided with diamorphine – pharmaceutical heroin.
This follows an approach that is used in Switzerland and other European countries.
Hogg recently penned a radical policy document for County Durham, ‘Towards a Safer Drug Policy’.
Humanising the role of policing, Hogg peppers his 54-page report with emotional stories of his experience of what he sees an ineffective policy of prohibition.
“I have spoken to too many grieving families who lost their children to drug addiction, and I have attended the scenes of too many drug overdoses during my policing career”, he writes.
“I am passionate about my objective to influence Government to implement informed policies which will reduce the harm within our communities, and the harm to individuals,” he maintains.
“The time has come to review current drug policy in the UK, to ask questions of its effectiveness at reducing harm, and to see what measures we could take to achieve better outcomes. It’s time for a safer drug policy.”
Photograph: Sophie Gregory