Test Your Drugs, Not Yourself

By Dexter Bohn, DNA President 2021/21

Student life is a special period in which self-exploration is deeply encouraged, for many people at University this means experimentation with drug use. In 2018, the National Union of Students (NUS) published a report which found that 56% of the 2,810 student participants who took part had used drugs in the past. This number should not surprise anyone familiar with student life, especially at Royal Holloway. 

The use of mind-altering substances, if not regular, is certainly a common feature of life for young people living with friends and away from family. Unfortunately, another common feature is that many students who decide to use these substances do so without an adequate understanding of the potential risks to their wellbeing. This is where the Drugs and Alcohol Awareness (DNA) student co-operative comes in. We are a group of like-minded students passionate about supporting the mental and physical wellbeing of the Royal Holloway student body through effective drug education and the promotion of harm reduction techniques. 

What we do is give our fellow students the information and support they need to make informed and responsible decisions in regard to substance use. This is not a task that we undertake lightly, in fact, it is an effort focused on addressing one of the biggest risk factors that students face on a daily basis and does vital work which is rightly the responsibility of the University itself. 

Royal Holloway maintains a zero-tolerance policy in relation to drugs, this is understandable given that most drugs (notwithstanding the ones sold in the SU shop) are illegal. However, the truth is that many students decide to experiment with drugs regardless of the law, and as an institution that prides itself on the provision of wellbeing and quality education, the university needs to embrace more direct harm reduction tactics. In tandem with SU support for drug education campaigns, a highly effective means of furnishing students with relevant information is providing access to reliable testing kits. 

Single-use testing kits are an inexpensive, simple and valuable tool for identifying the safety of drugs that are often heavily adulterated in the black market. Moreover, this practical approach to harm reduction is not by any means new to institutions of higher education. The Universities of Bristol, Newcastle, Sussex, Birmingham and Manchester have all implemented programs offering this service to their student bodies. In a BBC article from the 23rd November 2020, the director of student wellbeing at Bristol University, Alison Golden-Wright, is quoted as saying:

 This isn’t about us condoning it or taking a soft approach, this is about us being pragmatic and saying a number of our students will probably make these choices, what we want them to have is good information. 

Similar sentiments were echoed on the website of Manchester University’s Students Union as part of their commitment to opening up an ‘adult conversation’ around drug use:

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 policymakers to make changes to drugs policy that reflect a more realistic and proactive attitude.

The NUS has recognized that institutional support for drug testing is becoming more popular across the UK as progressive universities seek to evolve their approach to harm reduction. 

Royal Holloway does offer guidance to students about drug use on its SU website, however, much of the information is vague and sorely lacking in depth. For instance, the ‘Where to find support’ tab under the Drugs and Alcohol section doesn’t provide a single resource! Students in need are instead confronted with a bleak ‘Coming Soon’ banner, this is frankly disgraceful: see for yourself –https://www.su.rhul.ac.uk/advice/wellbeing/drugsandalcohol/

One of DNA’s goals for the second term of the 2020/21 academic year will be to publish a detailed analysis of the information of these pages and present the RHSU with clear, actionable changes that we want to see affected by the end of term 3. A major step in this regard will be to secure SU support for drug testing kits. Royal Holloway would certainly not be the first UK university to recognize the value of providing students with relevant and direct information about the substances that they use. It must be stressed that the provision of accurate, quality information about substance purity is one of the most effective ways of safeguarding students from potential harm. This is a measure aimed squarely at the portion of the student body who will be using drugs regardless of legality and are therefore the most at risk and in need of institutional support. Abandoning these students to meagre ‘Just Say No’ slogans is an entirely draconian and unacceptable approach to wellbeing that must be matured if Royal Holloway is to pride itself on being committed to the safety of all. 

Recognizing the importance of this proactive harm reduction tactic, we at DNA have a full stock of testing kits (Ketamine, Cocaine and MDMA) on hand and available for purchase (£2.50), simply message us on Instagram @dna_royalholloway and we will arrange a confidential sale. 

As a grassroots student-led organization founded in 2019 at Royal Holloway, DNA is campaigning tirelessly for the provision of accurate and effective drug education. If you would like to be a part of this deeply meaningful work and gain valuable experience for your CV we would love to bring you on board as part of the team. Please send a message expressing your interest to our Instagram account  @dna_royalholloway. If you are struggling with substance use in any way please also reach out to our friendly team of peers, we have been there and are here for you in confidential, wholehearted support.  

Works Cited: 

BBC – Bristol : https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-bristol-55046866

NUS 2018 Survey: https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/resources/taking-the-hit-student-drug-use-and-how-institutions-respond

Huffington Post – Manchester University

Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/mar/29/testing-kit-or-ban-how-universities-are-tackling-student-drug-use

Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/students-drug-testing-kits-universities-unions-nus-buckingham-university-a8574216.html