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What does drug culture look like at the University of Edinburgh?

CW: Drug use

If you are not doing drugs at uni, your flatmate probably is. There is an assumption that if you’re willing to do drugs, university is surely the time for you to flourish in the freedom of doing as you please. For the purposes of this article, a group of students shared their experiences with drugs with The Student, and their perception of drug use at Edinburgh University. Everyone has a preferred way of taking drugs, and just as preferences vary, so do the surroundings. Taking drugs in club bathrooms is supposedly a friendly environment, and being wary of your surroundings is the best thing you can do to be safe. Follow your instinct and respect your personal limits – as one student put it:  “don’t take drugs from men- that’s my rule.” The dangers involved in the use of drugs, a sensitive subject which is often overlooked, was not the main direction the interviews took. 

“There’s always a lesson when you’re taking drugs. Sometimes I learn from them and sometimes I don’t. But I learn to know my limits” 

“Does alcohol count?” This was the most common question thrown back by students when asked about drug use. This was a surprise considering these were students who consumed drugs such as ketamine, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and ecstasy among others – but were more concerned about their interactions with alcohol and the wide normalisation of it.

“I do think that in ways alcohol can be a lot worse at times because it is so normalized, people take it too far, without realizing how bad it can be” 

Alcohol is commonly a way in which many of us can engage in extreme drug consumption without being frowned upon – most people will instantly sympathise, having probably been there too. This normalisation, although tempting, can not be simply blamed on “society”- because this society is entirely constructed by us: by our (in)ability to say no to peer-pressure, by parenting and even by the university itself. These are all factors which contribute to a system in which alcohol is primarily viewed as a way to pass time and make friends, instead of addressing the serious dangers and precautions that should be considered too. Alcohol is a drug too, and this is something that often seems to be forgotten.

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“It’s really easy to call someone a smoke addict, but it’s really hard to call someone an addict to alcohol” 

How can we know if we are taking it too far? That it’s not just another night wasted? That we aren’t just “getting a drink”, but want – no, need the drink to talk to that stranger? Aren’t we all here just to socialise and enjoy each other’s company? Then why does it always have to involve a beer in hand? Another issue raised by students – whether they drank or not- was the involvement of alcohol in almost every social event the university organises.  One student said: “I think it’s everywhere.” University societies organise most, if not all, of their non-academic events with alcohol involved- this leaves non-drinkers little to no chance of involvement as they will generally prefer not to be a part of an environment where alcohol is protagonistic. Some people claim to be missing out on social aspects of university and others are not even interested anymore in the people they meet outside of alcohol-involved events, because they find them “boring” when sober.

“When you are in an environment where everyone else is doing something, you are way more likely to feel pressured to do that thing, even if I don’t agree with it, I wouldn’t want to be in that type of environment where I might begin to feel pressured” 

Aside from alcohol, peer-pressure on taking drugs was another factor that came up during interviews. Many students affirmed they never felt peer-pressured when entering university. No one outright forces you to take drugs, but instead to get together to socialise in environments where you might  feel like an outsider unless you get involved in taking drugs. This they do not describe as peer-pressure but as “just a social thing.” A survey released in 2021 by the National Union of Students of 1505 respondents found that 41% declared that the use of drugs had helped them make friends. Even though students don’t feel directly pressured into taking drugs, it seems to be a widespread belief  that you will make friends much faster this way, encouraging people to join in. 

“I probably wouldn’t have started doing drugs if people around me weren’t doing drugs. I would say it is quite accessible, there was no force of pressure but it was just sort of there” 

Many students claimed to have already started taking drugs on occasion before university, and although since getting here the consumption has increased it has been mostly due to two factors: more freedom and more time. Fewer contact hours than in school, and much more time to be around friends instead of any form of authority elevates the drug-use rate considerably. The workload itself has served both for inciting drug use and reducing it. Some argue that stress is occasionally a reason to lay back with your friends after a long day and “pass it around”- whereas this same stress is a reason for others to cut down on their intake at night and wake up earlier the next day. 

When you’re taking drugs you need the next few days to recover, and I don’t have the time for that” 

The precautions taken and management of consequences completely differ from one person to another- it all goes down to how safe you want to be. This could be measured through the physical environment you’re in, the people you surround yourself with, and your own mindset when going in. The first describes university as a much more desirable setting in which to take drugs than back at home. The second measure seems to praise an environment filled with old-time friends as a preference; many have felt unsafe in certain scenarios at university where they didn’t feel anyone had their back fully. One student said: “I’ve just ended up in situations where I don’t want to be in.” The last is more ambiguous, as it ties strongly with the personal reasons for why you take drugs. For instance, someone who takes them to “numb the pain” might consider the risks to a lesser degree than someone who takes them purely for recreational reasons. Sometimes, what might seem to be a night of relaxation is commonly accompanied by an attitude of carelessness that borders on recklessness. This often has led to some bad experiences marked by “taking it too far.”

“I guess it’s always at the back of your head, you do know there’s a risk”

Having brought out the tendencies, the consequences, and the dependencies that come along with drugs, do students still think they will be doing drugs after university?

Unsurprisingly, the answer given was always no. But when asked if they thought everyone who does drugs at university will be clean by the time they get out, their answer was no too: it’s the optimism bias, in which you think “it just won’t happen to me.” Moreover, just as everyone said they would not be taking drugs after university (or at least as much) they didn’t disregard drinking from their life, and assumed it will always be there. Does this speak to a lack of understanding we have on drugs? Or is attending university the most widely-accepted excuse for taking drugs? Students seem to conceptualize drugs (discluding alcohol) as a part of the university experience, thinking it won’t affect them, and that “now is the time.”

Pills” by Jamiesrabbits is licensed under CC BY 2.0.