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Lack of Drug Testing at UK Universities Puts Students at Risk

Drug testing services reduce the risks of drug use, yet most UK universities remain reluctant to support such services.

Providing people access to drug testing services (also known as “drug checking” or “pill testing”) allows them to know the contents of their purchase, following lab analysis by experts. Subsequently, a follow-up consultation with healthcare staff allows people to know how to reduce the risks of their drug use if they choose to consume what they had tested. Many people who use such services will change their dose based on the information they receive, or even avoid taking it at all.

The Loop has been at the forefront of such services in the UK since 2016, inviting individuals to anonymously test their drugs at music festivals and even Bristol city centre. Visitors can then discuss the test results with professionals, who will also provide harm reduction advice. The Loop’s founder Fiona Measham recently published an academic study which found numerous health benefits of providing such services.

Access to drug testing for students has, to an extent, become more prevalent in recent times.

Durham recently became the first UK University to support drug safety testing. The Loop tested drugs in Durham on December 12 and 15, in partnership with the city’s Police and Crime Commissioner, local police, a local church, and the university’s Chemistry and Sociology departments. The pop-up laboratory opened in St Nicholas Church, and samples were taken to the university’s chemistry lab for further testing.

A few UK universities are also providing kits directly to students to allow them to self-test their own drugs, although these kits are limited in their capability, and could potentially lull students into a false sense of security. They also do not provide an opportunity for students to consult with healthcare staff, as the Loop's approach. Universities permitting this – including Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, and Manchester – have taken a positive step in the direction of improved harm reduction and destigmatised drug use although permitting organisations like The Loop to provide services would be a significant positive step further.

Manchester University student union launched a trial programme for self-testing in September 2018, whereby students can pay £2.50 for kits to test their drugs. A union official has said:

“We believe it’s part of our responsibility to look after our student members to make these tests available to students across Manchester. We will continue to campaign to policy makers to make changes to drugs policy that reflect a more realistic and proactive attitude.”

Meanwhile, the University of Warwick’s student union is currently preparing to make free drug testing kits available to students because “it must be recognised that some students do and will continue to take drugs".

Interestingly, some universities seem to understand the benefits of such a harm reduction approach, but are unwilling to adopt it. Coventry University’s student union president, Tochukwa Ajare, recently said that the union “doesn’t currently offer drug testing kits but believes that are a useful tool to reduce harm.”

This seems to be a recurring theme among many UK universities. They are aware of how drug testing kits can greatly reduce harm, but they are ambivalent to take on such services – drawing on concerns that doing so could encourage more students to use drugs. This ignores the many reasons why a student may take drugs, including for self-medicating or therapeutic purposes.

Rob Noon, LGBT+ officer at the National Union of Students stated:

“With our research showing [how] so many students use drugs to deal with poor mental health and stress, it is highly unlikely that punishing them heavily and attempting to create a drug free university is going to deal with these issues […] it is likely to exacerbate them.”

Just as providing mental health services has become an essential part of how universities care for their students, drug testing and other harm reduction measures must be widely provided to improve student welfare.

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