In May this year, Newcastle University’s Students Union became the first SU in the UK to offer drug testing kits to its students.

The kits, sold at the below-RRP price of £3, allow students to test the content of drugs purporting to be MDMA and ketamine. They are being touted as a harm-reduction focused approach to student drug use.

Studies have consistently reported that over 50% of students at UK universities have experimented with illegal drugs, with figures at some universities surpassing 80%.

Newcastle’s initiative was spearheaded by the UK branch of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), an international organisation that calls for an end to “inhumane and unscientific drug policy”. They promote drug education and call for an end to zero-tolerance policies on drug use.

The SSDP urge that the safest way to take drugs is to not take them at all. But they argue that for the percentage of students who do choose to take drugs, education and drug testing can save lives. However critics have raised doubts about the program, because the kits only identify the presence of drugs, rather than their purity or the presence of some potentially harmful contaminants. But the SSDP have argued that some form of testing is better than none at all.

“The reaction from students has been 100% positive”

So is Newcastle the trailblazer of pioneering SU drug policy, or just an anomaly? We spoke to the Newcastle chapter of the SSDP to find out.

“We think the campaign has been very successful so far,” said Oliver McNally, who co-runs the Newcastle branch. “The reaction from students themselves has been 100% positive. The campaign ran from the beginning of March until exams finished at the beginning of June, and all 100 packs have been sold now.

“We launched an online survey to assess the findings of those using the kits and their opinion of the campaign. Responses have been low so far as this was done quite late into the campaign, however all the responses we did receive have been positive and one user even found suspected PMA (a highly dangerous ecstasy contaminant) in their sample of MDMA and therefore did not consume it.”

Uptake has been slow, meaning it will difficult to ascertain the true effects of this policy until much later. Press attention was also high during the initial launch, leading to rhetoric on both sides of the debate. It is clear that any shift in wider policy will be longer term and more evidence-based.

The start of something big?

But McNally believes Newcastle is only the start. “Representatives from five or six UK universities have been in touch, as well as some from the US, Australia and New Zealand, to ask about how we implemented the campaign as they had a view to replicating it.

“Other than that, I do believe SSDP UK is going to try and push this campaign out to other UK universities next year.”

“It depends how much resistance anyone trying to do this at other universities encounters. Unions or universities may well intervene or prevent the process if they take a dislike to it. We did speak to one person who had tried to do a similar thing when he was at university and encountered a lot of resistance. I think we were lucky, as Newcastle University, the SU, and Newcastle in general, is quite a progressive place. We didn’t really encounter anyone that thought it was a bad idea or wanted to stop us. But it definitely could be a different story at other universities.

“But I do think that now we’ve done it, at least a few more universities are bound to follow, and it will probably begin to increase exponentially as it starts to become seen as a more acceptable course of action.”

Image: markheybo, Flickr.

Billy graduated from Warwick University in 2017 with a first class degree in History. He is now a reporter at TIME magazine.

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