Freshly graduated with a degree in politics from the University of Stirling, Andy Paterson talks with the enthusiasm and determination of someone who wants to go out and make a difference. His mission is to convince Scottish universities to stop dishing out punishments to young people caught in possession of illegal drugs that could haunt them for years to come, and instead treat them with compassion while educating them on the dangers.

What Paterson advocates for is known as a harm reduction approach. And he has reason to be optimistic - the Scottish Government itself made the approach one of the key proposals of its Drug Law Reform paper released earlier this month. 

The campaigner hoped this could make his university more likely to listen to his demands: “Universities work in a top-down policymaking approach. If it comes from the top, then it's more likely to be implemented. Universities rarely act, unfortunately, if it’s coming from the bottom - if it’s students or staff protesting,” says Paterson. 

Scottish universities currently take a largely punitive, zero tolerance approach to student drug use - police can be called and students expelled for possessing illegal drugs, casting lifelong shadows over the dreams they are at university to try to achieve. 

One of Paterson’s friends and fellow campaigners had a drug-use disciplinary action used against them as grounds for suspension from their studies, and subsequently faced not just the threat this causes on their future plans but also the short-term financial worries of losing student finance. “I lost access to the majority of my income and was made to endure the challenges of claiming Universal Credit during the pandemic for half a year,” they said. 

Instead of issuing punishments that could ruin future paths of students, the campaigners argue universities would do better to adopt harm reduction.

Read more: Greed and pain: taming the twin devils that drive Scots drug epidemics

Harm reduction campaigners insist their proposals are not about having universities give the impression of a green light to illegal drug use - an understandable concern amongst their managements - but rather adopting a ‘sensible’ drug policy which acknowledges that many students do experiment with drugs and thus universities should create an environment which aims to reduce harm. Indeed, one of the main harm reduction groups which holds branches at universities across the UK, calls itself Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). 

Hamish Rae is a recent pharmacology graduate from the University of Glasgow, where he was also President of the Harm Reduction Society. He describes how one of the society’s first moves last year was to run a survey on student drug use. The idea, he says, was to show university management that student drug use is an issue too big to sweep under the carpet and make the point that ‘sensible’ drug policies are worth consideration. 

Around 80% of the 170 respondents had used an illicit substance since they started university. “Obviously there was some bias because it was us who was sharing it, and people choosing to take a survey about drugs might be more interested, but it’s still a shocking stat,” admits Hamish. A likely more representative survey conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) found 56% of students had taken illegal drugs at least once. 

Student harm reductionists point to the introduction of free drug safety kits being issued by Stirling University Student Union last year, the first Scottish student union to do so, as a landmark moment. The kits, which verify a substance, so a user knows exactly what they are taking, have become one of the groups’ flagship policies. Others include modules on safe drug use to be implemented in the curriculum and drug safety leads being present in student union club nights.

Read more: Drug related hospital admissions up by 13 per cent 

Paterson’s upbeat enthusiasm switches to frustration when I ask about dialogue on university-wide policy rather than his success in negotiations with the student union. He describes his fierce optimism that change is within sight being shaken when he attended the UK National Student Drug and Alcohol Conference in Leeds earlier this year and had the chance to speak to others with experience making policy in the area. 

Outlining University of Stirling policy, which is widely seen to lead the way in Scotland, a spokesperson said: "The University of Stirling works with our Students' Union and external partners to support all of our students. The University does not tolerate illegal drug use and all instances will see substances confiscated and Police Scotland contacted. Such incidents are also referred for consideration under the Code of Student Discipline, which was reframed in 2020 to place greater emphasis on providing support to the individuals concerned. This approach protects the health, safety and wellbeing of our whole student community, and ensures that individuals who require support receive it."

Meanwhile at Scotland’s biggest and oldest universities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, progress has been slower. At the University of Glasgow, campaigners told The Herald that they met with the Student Representative Council (SRC) last year only to be informed that the union had ordered in the drug safety kits Stirling has – but that they had gone out of date before they got around to distributing them, or indeed advertising their availability on campus. 

With discussions on harm reduction well behind the movement at Stirling, Rae’s tone throughout our discussion was less optimistic. He seems to acknowledge that the harm reduction movement is still in its early days: “We need someone higher up in the university to be talking about it. It’s just not getting the attention that it needs. It just seems like drug deaths and harm reduction gets pushed to the bottom.”

Read more: 'Alarming' increase in drug-related A&E attendances

Despite its disappointing engagements with the SRC last year, Rae hopes his plans for next year will be more fruitful. These include the proposal of a mandatory module on the safest approaches to drug use - Glasgow University already runs a similar module on gender-based violence. 

“When someone is caught with drugs, which happens quite a lot - especially in student halls - Glasgow’s policy is technically zero tolerance. So the police could be called. We had suggested instead a mandatory educational module for them. Nothing extensive or long, just something that covers the basics a lot of people are unaware of,” he explains. 

The NUS voted overwhelmingly at its conference to support the Help Not Harm campaign and endorse its aims. President Ellie Gomersall explained: “The current approach across much of the education sector is zero tolerance, a punishment-first method where a student caught in possession of drugs risks expulsion and monetary fines. These punitive measures are among the leading reasons that students do not seek help with drug-related issues, leading to harm and even fatalities that could be avoided through the adoption of a harm reduction approach by institutions, students’ associations, and the Scottish Government.”

The most obvious factor explaining reluctance from universities in adapting their drug policies is concern that such an approach could be read as saying that illegal drugs - which are clearly never risk-free - are okay to use. The harm reduction campaigners respond that their methods are “not about approving drug use but stopping drug deaths.”

Paterson believes it all comes down to the coverage a university could potentially receive over harm reductionist policies: “It is 100% about a university's reputation. A university's reputation is the most important thing to them. I wrote my dissertation on drug policies in universities across the UK. I did several interviews throughout with policymakers and every single one of them pointed towards the reputational damage it could have.

“Universities’ funding model specifically is one of the issues at play here because they rely on international students more heavily since they pay higher tuition fees and they don’t want any sort of negative press that could scare them off or scare their parents off who are paying these fees.”

Read more: The system is failing on drugs. It needs to change

Clearly, despite signalling from the Scottish Government that it wants to change its approach to tackling Scotland’s well documented drug problem, there is still a long way to go if the likes of Paterson and Rae are ever to see the sort of policies in place they want to see in our universities. 

When asked by The Herald whether it would encourage Scottish universities to adopt harm reduction policies, which were supported in its Drug Law Reform proposals, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Universities are autonomous bodies, and the Scottish Government does not determine their approach.”

Paterson, however, remains undeterred: “This is really important, because not only are you opening up that conversation about drug use, you're not stigmatising people for it either, which means that they're much more open to have conversations if they are struggling."