When Rahim*, a first-year university student, went to a festival last year, his friends bought some MDMA from a dealer they met at a party. He was apprehensive, since he usually only buys off contacts he trusts not to cut their substances with unwanted chemicals.
So when his group stumbled across a harm reduction service, one friend decided to buy a testing kit. “Thank god he bought it, because one of the MDMA pills turned out to have meth in it,” says Rahim. “It was quite scary.”
This was Rahim’s first brush with harm reduction, an approach that emphasises non-judgmental advice and support about drugs and alcohol, with a view to limiting damage to physical and mental health. To him it made sense: “A lot of people, especially young adults, don’t educate themselves; they just go off what their friends say.”
This information gap matters because drug use is increasingly popular among young people. Rahim was already exposed to casual recreational drug use growing up in London, but at university he’s observed that it is a major part of student culture. “Ketamine is a big thing here, which I didn’t really expect, and weed and cocaine are pretty big,” he says. “My friends in the year above said that every day there was a different drug being taken in their house.”
Rahim’s experience is borne out in a 2018 National Union of Students survey in which 39% of student respondents said they used drugs, with 23% describing themselves as occasional users, and 10% regular. While the stereotype is all about party drugs, 31% of users said they used drugs to self-medicate for stress, while 22% were tackling an existing mental health condition.
Rahim now plans to use a pioneering harm reduction initiative at his university, Bristol, which is funding free drug testing kits to enable students to determine the purity of their substances. The All About Drugs campaign, run in collaboration with the students union and local charity the Bristol Drugs Project, includes talks and a drop-in advice clinic to help students to understand and limit the harms posed by drugs, including alcohol.
When Sheffield University launched a similar drugs information campaign two years ago, it met with media backlash. Alison Golden-Wright, Bristol’s director of student health, thinks this was the result of a fundamental misunderstanding. “It’s not condoning or encouraging young people, it’s about recognising the risks to mental health and wellbeing [of drug use], and that young people especially often take those risks,” she says. “We want to make sure they have the information they need to manage it. People misinterpret it as a soft approach, but it’s not – it’s a pragmatic approach.”
Bristol Drugs Project chief executive Maggie Telfer thinks harm reduction is an essential response to a flourishing illegal drugs economy. With a wider range of substances now available, each with a different effect, information can help people make safer decisions when it comes to, for example, GHB, which can be fatal unless dosage