Opinion | A different view on drugs and alcohol is needed now more than ever

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By Joe Marshall, Opinion Subeditor

Students, society and government don’t see the culture of drinking and illicit drugs as a top priority when it comes to the agenda. But with the second lockdown still in place, it’s critical we talk about the issues and reframe our mind-set towards them.

In the most recent survey at the time of writing, Britons believe health to be the most important issue facing our country. While Covid-19 is of course at the forefront of everyone’s minds, so is our mental health.

Given the relationship that drinking and drugs have with our mental health, it’s surprising that it hasn’t featured more in policy or discourse.

Bristol is renowned for its high concentration of drug use – last year, The Independent bestowed the prestigious title ‘Cocaine Capital of Europe’ upon the city. With students playing a part in this accolade, discussion needs to be had on campus.

I’m conscious not to let this article descend into ‘Don’t Do Drugs’ pamphlet-style literature. The pandemic has, however, given us an opportunity to reflect on drug usage.

It’s probable that, if you went home for lockdown, you would have been less likely to have used ‘party drugs’ as much - if at all with your parents around. However, there has been an uptake in cannabis usage, with many using it as stress and anxiety relief in the uncertain year this has been.

Many students use drinking as a crutch, as something to depend on in social occasions

A greater awareness of why we’re using drugs, and how this year has been different to others in this respect, can only be a good thing. It is important to understand the way in which drinking and drug habits affect our mental health. This is particularly pressing, given the imminence of another lockdown.

Still, as much as we need to think about it, it’s contextually important to bear in mind that only a minority of students use illicit drugs, while alcohol use is far more prevalent on University campuses.

Within weeks of starting as a fresher, an international flatmate remarked his intrigue towards British drinking culture. His point was a valid one that students should acknowledge – many students use drinking as a crutch, as something to depend on in social occasions.

The ‘war on drugs’ approach that the UK and most other countries have taken clearly hasn’t worked

It’s concerning that the practice of needing a drink to relax socially has become normalised in UK student culture in a way that is alarming to other cultures. With 79% of the student population consuming alcohol to varying amounts, we can all reflect on how we might feed into this mind-set.

In my opinion, however, the most major change in perspective on drinking and drugs has to come from the institutions that govern us. That is to say that the UK Government and many universities have an aggressive policy towards students for behaviours pertaining to drug use.

This punitive approach is frankly unrealistic – the ‘war on drugs’ approach that the UK and most other countries have taken clearly hasn’t worked. It stigmatises drug users when, in reality, a significant proportion of the population consumes illicit substances. The students who are part of that group haven’t changed and won’t change their behaviour en masse with the threat of disciplinary measures.

Bristol SU sets up new drug harm reduction campaign
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A shift to a more cooperative approach is required from government and higher education institutions alike. The University of Bristol’s approach of harm reduction is along the right lines.

Only in such environments can more transparent discussion take place, with those with drinking and drug problems able to safely seek and gain access to support.

Students should take the opportunity that this year has presented to reflect on the drink and drugs culture we’re a part of.

Featured Image: Epigram / Jack Crockford


Do you think that there is a social pressure to consume drugs and alcohol at the University?

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