The National Union of Students (NUS) have released a report on student drug use and drug policies in the UK, in collaboration with Release (the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law).

The report includes the results of a survey of 2,810 UK-based students, which explores students’ attitudes to, and experiences of, drugs. While this is not a prevalence study, we found drug use to be a common – although infrequent – behaviour among survey respondents. The report also looks at the institutional support available at 151 universities and colleges, and their disciplinary responses to students who use drugs. The vision for this research is to be able to build campaigns, policies and communities that keep students safe and challenge the stereotypes around drug use.

Key findings include:


  • 39% of respondents reported that they currently use drugs, and 17% had done so in the past. As a result, 56% of our overall respondents reported having used drugs at some point.
  • Most respondents said they use drugs occasionally (23%), rather than regularly (10%), or on most days (6%).
  • Mental health is clearly a factor in student drug use; 31 per cent of respondents who have used drugs say they have done so to deal with stress and 22 per cent to self-medicate for an existing mental health problem.
  •  Two-thirds of these respondents stated that taking drugs had improved their day-to-day experience of an existing mental health condition yet one-third felt that a mental health condition had worsened as a result of drug use.
  • Overall, students showed largely accepting attitudes towards drugs, with the majority of all respondents (62 per cent) telling us that they do not have a problem with students taking drugs recreationally.
  • Respondents tended to disagree that institutions drug policies does not do enough to punish students who use drugs. 40% of respondents said they wouldn’t feel comfortable disclosing information about their drug use because of fear of punishment. This indicates students believe that policies need to be less punitive and shows the punitive nature of policies are stopping students from getting appropriate support
  • The types of support institutions made available were not the ones students were most satisfied with nor the ones they tended to access.
  • In the 2016/17 academic year, there were at least 2,067 recorded incidents of student misconduct for the possession of drugs. While many were resolved via a formal warning or another type of sanction, such as a fine, some institutions adopted a more punitive approach. At least one in four of these incidents (531) were reported to the police and 21 resulted in a student being permanently excluded from higher education for simply possessing a drug for personal use.
  • At least 56% (82) of institutions can discipline students for behaviour that is not a criminal offence.
  • 16% (24) of institutions incorrectly advise students that the use of drugs is a criminal offence.


The findings in this report paint a complex picture of student drug use, one that has both positive and negative impacts on students’ lives. Policy responses that focus solely on disciplining students fail to recognise the complex reasons that lead people to use drugs.  There is, therefore, a risk that such policies may only serve to further marginalise certain groups of students, such as poorer students and those from a liberation (black, disabled, trans, LGBT+ and women) background.


The report outlines a number of recommendations for educational institutions, students’ unions, NUS and Release to address the issues raised through this research.


Recommendations include:


  • A range of appropriate support, particularly harm reduction advice and information should be made available to students.
  • Students should not be disciplined for drug-related behaviour that does not constitute a criminal offence. Drug possession incidents should be dealt with informally (i.e. “no further action” or “informal resolution”)
  • If a more punitive approach is required, this should be applied through a formal warning system. Students should not be reported to the police or permanently excluded from their studies for simply possessing a drug.
  • Educational institutions should ensure that all students are able to access adequate mental health support services, particularly those from liberation backgrounds and others who are more vulnerable to experiencing mental illnesses.


Jess Bradley, NUS Trans Officer said:

“We welcome the findings of the survey and having a more holistic understanding of student drug use. The overwhelming narrative is one of students not getting the right support from educational institutions, and of being harmed by punitive drug policies where they are in place. National drug policy is frequently criticised for its moralistic approach which lacks a basis in evidence and focuses on punishment rather than support. Our research takes into account the contexts, motivations and impacts of student drug use and has highlighted areas of best practice in evidence-based approaches which champion harm reduction and human rights. It’s clear that our educational institutions must engage in meaningful work to minimise any harms associated with both the criminalisation of students who use drugs and of drug use itself. Our research points to several recommendations which, if implemented by universities, colleges and students’ unions, would make significant contributions to making student life safer and more enjoyable for all.”


Zoe Carre, Policy Researcher at Release said:


We are deeply concerned about the punitive approach taken towards student drug use in some institutions and the appropriateness of support that is offered around drugs in most cases. The fact that at least 21 students were permanently excluded from their studies for simply possessing a drug, and one in four students caught with drugs for their own personal use were reported to the police, is archaic and harmful – this type of approach prevents people from seeking support if they need it. The reality is that students take drugs and educational institutions must have policies and procedures in place that protect the student population, this can only be done by providing vital harm reduction information, so that they can make more informed choices and be as safe as possible. We are witnessing record high deaths involving cocaine and MDMA/ecstasy, and it is incumbent on institutions to take steps to protect the health and wellbeing of students who use drugs.”


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