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When your campus is controlled by global drug laws deemed ‘unscientific’ by boffs

By Rachel Brown

Saturday 7 May 2016 Student Journalists

Have you ever thought about how international policy affects you on campus? You may not realise the university's disciplinary procedures on drugs has been influenced by UN decision-making going back to when Bladerunner was considered cutting-edge.

In 1998, a UN general assembly special session on drugs (UNGASS) gathered under the theme ‘A drug free world – we can do it!’ They pledged we’d all be free from drugs by 2008. Today, their vision sounds more like the nauseating spiel of a Miss World finalist. But it actually reflects a prohibition consensus going back to Reagan: the belief drug abuse is effectively tackled by prohibition with policing.

Seen most clearly in the war on drugs, Bill Clinton’s apology to Mexico last year should have punctuated the prohibitionist approach with a full stop. Clinton acknowledged the approach has not eliminated drug trade but simply pushed it into Mexico and Central America, culminating in chilling drug cartel violence that has even lowered average male life expectancy in Mexico.

Such dramatic effects have urged UNGASS to bring its next session forward by two years. They will meet in Vienna later this month. But experts advised the pre-meeting paper indicates UNGASS has no intention of shifting drug policy away from prohibitionist logic, if you can call it that.

Their forecast becomes even more surprising when we look at the evidence; something The Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health boffs have just questioned of those eighties world leaders. Lancet believes the war on drugs was based on ‘unscientific’ beliefs about tackling substance abuse and supply. These thoughts established the prohibition consensus, effectively a culture of criminalisation sent from the UN on high. Lancet argues for a shift towards legalisation and a public health perspective. It’s telling that in most countries, drug agencies are concentrated in criminal departments, not healthcare.

Lancet’s position is supported by pockets of progressive law-making. Portugal has decriminalised personal possession of drugs including heroin since 2001. Jail time has been replaced with the offer of therapy which costs less than incarceration and avoids addicts being driven underground. The results are jaw-dropping. Portugal has gone from enduring a heroin epidemic to boasting the lowest drug user rate in Europe. Even the rate among teenagers has declined so decriminalisation appears to influence drug use behaviours too. Progressive drug laws in Switzerland and Czech Republic have seen similar success. It’s no wonder countries like Canada are now also steering away from criminalisation.

But what does this have to do with your university? The culture of prohibition is so embedded it has trickled down to universities, which seem to follow suit by uncritically adopting the same prohibitionist tack towards students. Many campuses enforce ‘zero tolerance’ policies so those with drugs in dorms are typically evicted. These policies are just a small scale version of that Miss World-like UN policy: our campus will be drug free!

Holly Robinson, president of Newcastle Students for Safer Drugs Policy (SSDP), agrees the university ‘just say no’ approach is ineffective. Holly recalls a student who was told in a meeting with university staff that you shouldn’t take drugs ‘because it’s illegal’, reproducing the Reagan idea drugs are tackled by criminalisation. It seems ironic the university - centre of gravity for scientific method and critical analysis - is handling their own students’ drug use by following the prohibition consensus – a culture Lancet calls ‘unscientific’.

That’s why the SSDP, an international movement, is ripe for our time. If you think this is just ‘stoner society’ in disguise, think again. The University of Newcastle SSDP does not take a stance for or against drugs but focuses on minimising the risks of drug use. They successfully campaigned against the campus ‘zero tolerance’ policy last year. Instead of being thrown out, students are now given an initial warning and support is offered. Their current campaign, ‘Test your drugs, not yourself’ wants drug checking kits made available to students.

The Lancet Report and success of progressive laws call universities to rely on the evidence, even if UNGASS continues ignoring it in Vienna this month. Holly says universities should be offering unbiased information, support for drug dependency and harm reduction services like the drug checking kits. To get here, universities must do what global leaders apparently haven’t – the science part. The new approach might be a harm reduction service for universities too because then they guarantee, as a body, freedom from being under the influence of the global drug prohibition culture.

Want to get involved? Join the SSDP UK, Support. Don’t Punish Day of Action in Manchester and Sheffield on 26 June 2016.

You can also like Newcastle SSDP on Facebook.


Journalist Rachel



I'm a mature student graduate studying political theory at the University of York. Writing for the student perspective column, I'll explore what current affairs mean to students and how today's news affects us as an interest group. With experience in feminism and activism, I'm keen to share my take on the student political agenda. A Southerner migrated north, I'll emphasise decentralised student opinion – showing an active student life exists north of London. I'm passionate about student political awareness, believing students to be the lifeblood of civil movements and social solidarity. Bringing you my perspective in a bid to offer refreshing insights, I aspire to both inform you and motivate you to action.