home Features A New Student-Led Approach to Ireland’s Drug Issue

A New Student-Led Approach to Ireland’s Drug Issue

In our last issue, Roisin O’Donnell discussed the drug epidemic that is happening in Cork City.
While her article detailed discarded needles and anti-social behaviour on the streets of our city, there is another narcotic culture developing on our campuses around Ireland. Drug use among young adults, (in particular, third-level students), has always been prevalent in Ireland, but according to recent studies, it is on the rise. Detailed in an EU wide study conducted in 2015, Cannabis and cocaine still remain the most popular choices, although there is an alarming rise in the use of so-called ‘party drugs’; namely MDMA, (also known as “ecstasy”), and LSD. These are hallucinogenic and psychedelic, respectively, and both are associated with feelings of euphoria and hallucinations. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to determine either what is in a single dose of ecstasy or its strength and there can be other dangerous chemicals mixed into the drug. On top of this, mixing hard drugs with alcohol or polydrug use, (taking multiple types of drugs at once), can lead to health complications, and in some cases, death.

Drug use typically goes hand in hand with Irish music festivals, with a reported 453 drug-related
incidents occurring at Electric Picnic this year. In a recent study conducted on festival-goers, it found that one in twenty young adults, (18-34-year-olds), had taken MDMA within the last twelve months. A more alarming statistic is the 90% of respondents who admitted to mixing drugs on one or more occasions. It is evident that prohibition and prevention are not working. People are still finding ways to sneak drugs into festivals, bars, and nightclubs. If we can’t eradicate them, isn’t it time we start educating people to make drug use as safe as possible? Traditionally, Ireland has adopted a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs. This started changing in 2017 when a new health strategy was implemented. “Reducing harm, supporting recovery: a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017- 2025”, is the first government-led strategy to move towards an integrated approach to illegal drug use and alcohol consumption.

Now, Ireland is moving towards a harm reduction approach. Rather than shaming people who take drugs and attempting to reduce drug use, we are now trying to inform people and make them aware of the steps that can be taken to minimise the negative impact of drug use. The HSE is pushing a major harm-reduction campaign with information and advice being offered. Messages such as “start low, go slow” and “leave the mixing to the DJ” are being spread around social media, however, the underlying message of abstinence being the safest approach is still present. Interestingly, the HSE has found that festival organisers and nightclub owners are reluctant to share these messages of harm reduction themselves. It is thought that the reasoning behind this is avoidance, if these organisations agree to participate in harm reduction strategies, they are also admitting that drugs are an issue at their festival or in their clubs.

When it comes to drugs policies in university, there is a noticeable divide between students and
University administrators. In UCC for example, the official policy is one of zero-tolerance. It has been proven in studies and by medical professionals that this is not always the best approach. For many, the stereotypic “Just Say No” does work, but not for those people who choose to take drugs. Amongst these people, this strategy can actually do more harm than good. Young people
are simply told “Don’t do drugs, they’re dangerous” and expected to believe this. Yet they may have a friend who has tried illicit drugs and seemed perfectly fine, so they think it must be okay for them too. The next day they realise nothing bad happened, so surely everything they’ve

been told about drugs being dangerous is a lie. This is where the problem lies with a zero- tolerance policy. It suddenly becomes hard to differentiate between using a little and using a lot. We cannot ignore the fact that students partake in illicit drug use, the same way we cannot ignore the excessive alcohol consumption that occurs among younger people. So why is there a harm reduction, health-based approach to alcohol with guidelines for long term use and nothing similar in place for drugs?

While cannabis use is prevalent among 16-18-year-olds, hard drugs become the ‘thing to take’ in university. Students are arriving into university, going out more and being exposed to drugs regularly. For many young people, their first experience of hard drugs is in university or at music festivals. This was the case for me, two months into my first year at UCC. I was heading into a bathroom stall in a popular student bar when another girl pushed in with me, dragging a guy behind her. I began to object to the intrusion when the girl shushed me. “It’s fine, he’s only here to take something. He won’t look at you”. I watched on in awe as this boy produced a small bag of white powder and proceeded to tap some onto his hand. After snorting some of the product, he looked up to see me watching him. Mistaking my horror for curiosity, he reached out his hand and asked if I wanted any. After telling him I was okay, but thank you, I quickly ducked out of the cubicle, overwhelmed at what had occurred. Never before had I come in contact with anything stronger than cannabis, and here was this stranger offering me an unknown white powder to
snort out of his dirty hand.

A national student drug survey carried out in 2015 found that out of 2,701 college students, 82% had tried illegal drugs at least once. Of these respondents, 34% admitted that they had purchased a bag of ‘mystery white powder’. The most common reason for taking illicit drugs is to have fun, followed by curiosity. Interestingly, peer pressure was cited as the least common reason, which contrasts to the popular warnings young people are given about copying friends who take drugs. With these statistics in mind, students across Ireland are taking a different approach to the drug problem on campus. Far from condoning it, they simply recognise that drug use is an issue but, rather than condemning the action, they work to educate students on safer drug use and harm reduction. Student-led organisations such as Student Unions and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) are working together to promote this message of harm reduction. They do not aim to eliminate the harm associated with drug use, (they believe that abstinence is the safest approach), their goal is to educate students about the risks associated with different drugs and to effectively reduce the overall harm involved. One campaign that the SSDP has been running is the use of drug testing kits on campus. Having previously given out these kits at different events on campus, the group had been planning on
handing out more kits during Freshers Week 2019. Unfortunately, the University denied them permission to hand out these kits, claiming they were unreliable and not yet HSE approved. While the SSDP admits that these kits have their limitations, they believe that they are a helpful step towards harm reduction in Ireland.

These kits would allow students to test a sample of their drug for particular substances and adulterants. Some kits also allow for the purity of the substance to be tested. In previous years, the SSDP reports that students who have received a testing kit have often thrown away the substance they were planning on taking, after finding dangerous ingredients in the sample. Chairwoman Ruby Lawlor described how the kits could help in more than one way; “When

students came to our stand to collect the kit, we had the opportunity to talk to them about the particular drug they were planning on taking. We could give them information about the effects of the drug and the comedown, as well as giving advice on harm reduction and how to stay safer. This was an important part of our process as we were able to reach a new population.
Unfortunately, these students who do partake in drug use are not the ones who attend our harm reduction events and workshops. Yet they were coming along to collect a drug testing kit, at which point we could target them with valuable information and a little intervention in their behaviour.”

Festivals in other countries around the world have implemented on-site drug testing labs, the results of which have been positive. These pilot introductions have proven that “festival-goers engage productively with onsite testing services when given the opportunity; such services can access harder-to-reach and new user groups as well as playing a role in harm reduction”. It is now known that zero-tolerance, prohibition policies do not work, while harm reduction strategies have been yielding increasingly positive results. With this in mind, surely it is time for Irish universities to work alongside the HSE and student organisations to promote a harm reduction ethos? There is a hopeful trend occurring in our government which coincides with the new 2017 Health Strategy. Minister for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, is currently working on a two-pronged action plan to promote safer attitudes towards drug use amongst students. She believes that a key problem is the lack of reliable data and information surrounding drug use, and thus plans to work alongside Universities and other third-level institutions to gather new
data directly from students. Simultaneously, the creation of a rapid response group will provide resources and processes on campus’ for students to seek advice and information before or after taking drugs. This action plan will begin here in UCC before being rolled out among other Irish universities. For now, we can only hope that third-level institutions continue to work alongside
government departments and student groups to promote this much-needed harm reduction policy.

For further advice and information, visit ssdp.org or drugs.ie.