Stay at home seshing can cost students their lives, experts warn
Recent drug deaths aren’t a result of high strength drugs but the way students are consuming them, testing experts say
Three students died of suspected drug usage in just one weekend last term, all in the same city. Two of the deaths, a Newcastle student and Northumbria student, are suspected to be linked to drug usage and ketamine was found when searching the Newcastle students’ flat. The Northumbria student is believed to have taken MDMA before he died.
Then, a month later, two young people died in the same weekend in Cardiff – again, of suspected drug usage. A 25-year-old man and 18-year-old Cardiff fresher collapsed in totally different locations within 24 hours of each other. Both died, and two men have been subsequently arrested on separate drug charges, including supply of ketamine, cocaine and MDMA.
You’d be forgiven for immediately assuming a bad batch of drugs is going around. But experts say this isn’t the case, and rather the environment that students are now consuming drugs in is what’s putting them more at risk.
In fact, potent drugs circulating the UK is nothing new at all and drug testing services haven’t noticed a spike in dangerous ketamine or MDMA. “High strength drugs have been a mark of the past 10 years” says Fiona Measham, co-founder of UK drug testing charity The Loop. “We shouldn’t focus on what was in the drugs as that’s often not the issue.” The issue, she says, is with universities approaches to drug use – “disciplinary, versus harm reduction” – and a lack of drug testing options, something that has been made all the more dangerous amidst the pandemic.
With students taking drugs in their bedrooms, homes, and halls kitchens more than ever before, the risk is higher. In a drug survey conducted by The Bristol Tab, which was answered by over 400 students, 62 per cent of them said they had been doing drugs inside their student houses or halls more often this year, as opposed to last year when clubs were open. In drug survey results from 14 universities, the dominant reason 3,135 students cited behind their drug use this year was “boredom” and a need for “distraction”.
Cameron Scully, who runs European drug testing website The Trip Report, emphasises the danger behind the rise of the “stay at home sesh”. He told The Tab: “With the closure of legal venues and the furor around house parties and raves, people are less likely to get immediate medical help from staff and less likely still to call for an ambulance.”
This is some students’ first experience doing drugs, with dealers are slipping calling cards into student accommodations and infiltrating halls group chats to sell their stash. Em*, a second year Lincoln student, is living in halls again this year. She says that this year she’s seen a massive rise in people smoking weed, the well known “training wheels” of drug usage.
“I’ve seen way more first years smoking weed when I go out to smoke,” she says. “It’s definitely something that people seem to be doing to wind down, and because weed is so social it seems like it’s one of the ways a lot of first years have made friends. Like people aren’t meeting people on their course, or on nights out and it’s hard to mingle when everything’s online. Weed is a good ice breaker. It gives people a reason to go outside and talk to people.”
Dealers agree. “I’ve been selling way more weed to students since lockdown,” Em’s dealer Jamie* says. “People are buying bulk more than last year, like stocking up for a while instead of just getting a bit for a night out. More ket and coke too, the sales have gone up.”
And it’s not just first years that can account for this. All the uni students who would be doing drugs in normal times are now doing drugs at home, because there’s nowhere else to do them. And as the survey of 14 universities showed, it’s often borne out of boredom. To quote one student who spoke to The Tab anonymously: “Because what else is there to do? It’s the only way to spice up your night on the sofa sometimes.”
Patrick*, a third-year Leeds student, says it’s become the norm. “There definitely is a culture though of getting pissed at home and then just turning to your mate, ‘shall we get the bags in.’ To which your mate responds, ‘yeah might as well.'”
Drug use was already widespread at unis before the pandemic hit. In 2018, a study by the National Union of Students found that 39 per cent of students were currently using drugs. But with lockdowns and tier systems pushing this drug use further underground (or rather, inside), how do universities handle this culture of drug-taking?
Punishments, largely. Most often, students will face a fine or warning from their university for being caught using drugs, with the ultimate threat of expulsion. Last year, Buckingham University introduced a Dazed and Confused-eque “pledge” for students to sign, vowing not to do drugs and agreeing to the risk of expulsion should they choose to do them anyway.
Unfortunately, this seems to do very little good at all in changes student attitudes towards drugs. In fact, students are of the opinion that even if you’re unlucky enough to get caught, the rules are rather badly enforced. Hattie, who studies at a notoriously “ketty” Russell Group uni which boasts a “zero-tolerance drugs policy” told The Tab: “It doesn’t even feel illegal to take drugs when you’re at uni because it’s so normalised, and I’ve never heard of [someone getting kicked out] so it doesn’t really make a difference. I know students who deal who have been caught with drugs and arrested, one even went on trial, but they have all been allowed to stay on at uni.”
Fiona Measham of The Loop says these policies at unis are misguided and ineffective. “Universities are still threatening to expel students caught with drugs. This doesn’t help open up the conversation at all.” Fiona instead backs harm reduction approaches; policies that focus on student health and wellbeing and employ a wider use of drug testing.
While some universities have moved toward harm reduction approaches, Newcastle University included, this doesn’t come without its own limits. The Guardian recently reported on Bristol University’s decision to help supply students with self-testing drug kits, a bold move amongst its zero-tolerance peers. But self-testing kits are far from perfect. “The Guardian reported the Bristol Uni home test kits meaning to be positive,” Fiona says, “but the article unintentionally illustrated the problem with them. The article quoted a student relieved that he had identified methamphetamine in a pill and implying he’d have died if he’d taken the pill. Firstly, test kits don’t test for meth, just amphetamines, and secondly, amphetamines are probably less deadly than MDMA. After all, children with ADHD are given dexamphetamine daily. So people are hyping up the accuracy and the value of home test kits.”
Kez, a UCL student who has experienced self-testing before, went through this exact self-testing mishap in real life. “It’s basically really difficult to understand unless you’re a chemist. Like, I was with my boyfriend and his mate when they were preparing to do some MD. They bought the self-test and the result that came back was chemical compound markers being flagged. They couldn’t piece it together because lots of things flagged so they thought everything that flagged was bad, and they ended up binning perfectly good MD. They googled it later and after asking someone who understood, realised they had binned perfectly good mandy.”
In an ideal world, Fiona Measham and her colleagues at The Loop want lab level public drug testing. She recognises the problem is not just with universities, but with the countries’ approach to drug use as a whole. Shifting the zeitgeist might take a while, but she has plans for the meantime too: “We could set up a COVID-secure Loop drug checking services because we have a national network of 100s of trained and qualified Loop volunteers who could offer online virtual consultations. We would just need the authorities to all agree to us operating the system, having sample drop-off points, and us getting the results to our staff.”
Easier said than done, but Fiona is hopeful for a better future in university, and UK wide, drug testing policy. But that’s the future, and there are students taking drugs tonight, tomorrow, and all of next term that might have bad reactions, even in the safety of their own living rooms. Ambulance call-out worthy reactions. For now, the best advice for stay at home seshing is to take care of one another and research what overdose symptoms can look like for that drug. According to The Trip Report’s Cameron: “Right now, nothing will protect students better than taking care of each other throughout the night and being willing to get help if necessary.”
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of drug users.