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More UK Universities Should Follow Sheffield’s Harm Reduction Approach

Universities across the UK should provide harm reduction advice for students who may use drugs, as currently takes place at the University of Sheffield.

Earlier this year, the University of Sheffield’s Student Union (SU) began providing harm reduction information to students who may use drugs. On the university’s SU website, it is emphasised that this is to protect the safety of students; “If you or a friend feel unwell or unsafe on a Students’ Union night out, then please alert a member of staff immediately. You will not be judged or penalised in any way. We have trained first aid staff on site at all times to look after you.”

Although neither Sheffield University nor the SU condones the use of drugs on campus, their approach acknowledges how students may use drugs during their time at university. The SU links to harm reduction guidance, including details about needle exchanges, while also providing external guidance from The Loop – a UK charity which provides drug safety testing, welfare support, and harm reduction services at nightclubs and festivals.

Sheffield SU’s approach has been endorsed by Anyone’s Child, a network of families whose “lives have been wrecked by current drug laws”, and who are now campaigning to change prohibitionist policies.

Ray Lakeman, one of the group’s advocates, said he wished that such guidance existed for his two sons who died in 2014 after consuming MDMA obtained from the dark web. Through sharing the story of his two sons, he hopes to contribute to the discussion of harm reduction information can be provided to young people to avoid such tragic deaths.

"I think [Sheffield SU’s approach] acknowledging what's going on and trying to keep students safe. It's realistic," Lakeman said. "I don't condone drug-taking but I know it happens. Universities need to be open and honest."

While the advances of the university have been celebrated by many, some critics are worried that it normalises drug use. However, Sheffield SU’s welfare officer Katharine Swindells’ has responded to such accusations. In an article for the Metro, Swindells writes:

“Too many young people experiment with drugs without any knowledge of what they do, how they work and what the risks are. We need to provide students information so that they can make informed decisions – and stay safe. This isn’t the Students’ Union normalising drug-taking; this is us taking precautions to reduce risk.”

Swindells’ also addressed how the university had collaborated with SU Welfare to produce information and videos to keep students safe.

A recent report by Release, the UK’s centre of expertise on drugs and drug laws, and the National Union of Students (NUS) provided insight into student drug use trends and indicated a worrying lack of harm reduction advice in higher education institutions. The report recommends that a harm reduction framework would be far more effective than the punitive “drugs and alcohol policy” that many universities currently implement. “Zero tolerance” rules at many institutions lead to punishments – and even exclusion – for students caught with drugs, dissuading them from seeking help or advice.

Ultimately, the University of Sheffield’s SU has made a bold step that could possibly pave the way for other UK universities to follow along. More honest discussions are needed at university when it comes to drug use, as the taboo surrounding it is leading to unnecessary harms.

Take a look at TalkingDrugs’ harm reduction graphics:

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