Are students a demographic plagued by drug problems or just misrepresented by the media? The Western Eye team surveyed UWE students to find out and provide an accurate account of what you really think of the drugs scene in Bristol…

If you believe some, Bristol has a huge drugs problem. The city is a well known transit point for getting drugs into the South-West as well as a distribution point to the North.
According to the Bristol Drugs Project, a charity which offers support for drug users, an estimated 8,000 people in Bristol have a “serious problem” with heroin and/or crack cocaine. Added to this is the media perception of drug use in the city. Drugs such as ecstasy were linked to the influential music scene of the 90s and more recently teen drama Skins has depicted drugs as being available in abundance.
But do UWE students interact with the drug culture within the city? And if so how? Over the last few months the Western Eye has carried out a survey asking UWE students about their experiences with illegal drugs.
The Survey Results
Of the 1,003 students who took part in the survey 87.9% reported having at some time taken illegal drugs. This number is much greater than the 42% of 16-24 year olds who reported drug use in the 2006/7 British Crime Survey (BCS), though it must be noted that our survey is not a representative sample of UWE students.
Cannabis came out on top as the drug most students have tried; with 20.8% of respondents saying they had used it. This number is keeping with the 20.9% who reported using Cannabis in the 2006/7 BCS). This is similar to findings from previous studies of UK students. A survey of drug use amongst students in ten British universities that was published in 1997 indicated that 27% reported regular weekly cannabis use. In addition 64-71% of those surveyed had used drugs other than cannabis. This study also indicated that cannabis use was most widespread amongst arts and social science students.
41.1% of students who completed the survey admitted to using class A drugs compared to just 8.6% of the population in the BCS. Over half of this figure (23%), was made up of people who have used either MDMA (11.6%) or pills (11.4%). Cocaine accounted for 11.6% of usage. Ketamine, which is becoming increasingly popular in Bristol, scored highly compared with the BCS with 7.9% of respondents admitted to using. Ketamine usage only accounted for 0.8% in the BCS.
The survey also found the most common reason for students first taking drugs was curiosity. 70.9% said this was the reason whereas 15.9% of admitted that peer pressure was the main reason. Interestingly, female students are more likely to feel under pressure, with 17.2% saying they do compared to just 14.1% of male students.
Male VS Female
Male students were found to be more active in the supply of drugs and are also more likely to be in contact with dealers. 29.9% admit to obtaining drugs from a dealer whereas female students are more likely to obtain drugs through a friend. Due to this apparent increased use of drugs by male students they are also almost three times as likely to be caught in possession by a bouncer or police officer. Almost 24% of male respondents admitted to being caught compared to just 9% of females. However, this figure is possibly down to the fact that bouncers and police officers are more likely to search men than women.
When asked to explain further most respondents said they had been cautioned for possession of cannabis or MDMA or thrown out of clubs for snorting cocaine in the toilets. One student said: “A bouncer caught me dabbing MDMA in a toilet cubicle of a arge well known venue in Bristol. He asked me for it and I gave it to him. He asked me if I had any more and I said I didn’t. He told me not to do it again.” Another student reported that they had being caught selling crack cocaine and another said they were caught with 100 pills and nearly sent to prison.
Drugs in Bristol & at UWE
Results show that 83% of students think it is easy to acquire drugs in Bristol. One student who wishes to remain anonymous commented on this statistic: “I find it really easy to buy drugs in Bristol – it usually only takes one phone call for me to get pretty much anything I want. Even if I don’t know someone who can get something, I will always have a friend or work colleague who does. I have never been unable to get drugs in Bristol when I’ve wanted them – almost everybody I know has a contact.”
One statistic which could worry the University showed that 24% of survey participants had used illegal drugs on campus (excluding halls). UWE & UWESU both have very clear lines on illegal drugs.
“UWE is required by law to prevent the use and supply of controlled drugs on their property and may therefore take action if you are found to be in possession (or involved in the use or supply) of illegal drugs.”
Students found to be possessing or supplying illegal substances are likely to will face eviction from UWE accommodation and face University disciplinary action. The SU drugs policy states that; “UWESU does not condone the possession, use or supply of illegal drugs, nor the misuse of alcohol or other substances, on its premises”.
Unsurprisingly, results show that there is a link between drug use and the music scene in Bristol. When asked what venues they associate with drug taking 49.7% of named clubs that specialise in Drum & Bass or electro music. The Western Eye approached several of these clubs to comment on their drugs policy but received no reply.
A student who took the survey commented: “It’s no surprise that clubs that play this sort of music have more drug use; it’s just the way things are there. It doesn’t mean they’re more dangerous places. People just use drugs instead of drinking. Both can be harmful, it’s just that drinking is legal. For people who are on pills, fighting is the last thing on their mind. It’s a different story in the Oceana-type clubs.”
Student Opinion on the Media
Finally the survey asked the 1,003 respondents to comment on how accurate they feel the media portray illegal drug use. This produced literally hundreds of comments, showing that many of those who responded have strong feelings on how the media portrays drug use.
Many respondents pointed out that the media portrays two conflicting concepts of illegal drug use. One student commented
“They’re either glorified or villainised. There’s no in-between portrayal, which would be more accurate. They’re made into this huge deal, when in reality they’re very much more mundane.”
Many students felt that popular Bristol based teen drama Skins portrays drug use in a very unrealistic light. One student said: “Skins is utterly ridiculous and glorifies drugs in a stupid way so that kids will want to try [drugs]. I don’t believe in glorifying drugs to teenagers, but giving them a true, honest and balanced representation of what drugs can do. But to actually show the reality of drugs, rather than overly negative or positive, can be seen as actually quite dull.”
Another said simply “no teenager has that much money to get that many drugs.” Another argued that the media always exaggerates dangers, however Skins portrays drugs as harmless” adding that the media “need to find a balance. People should be free to make their own choices about taking drugs based on reliable evidence; the government needs to fund more research into how drugs affect the body rather than spending all its money on
trying to catch dealers.”
The Western Eye tried to contact the producers of Skins but none were available for comment. However in an interview with Skins creator Jamie Brittain defended the criticism the series has received. “The characters in Skins are mostly based on mine and my little sister’s experiences. I can’t speak for anywhere else, but being a teenager in Bristol in the late ‘90s, early ‘00s was a lot of fun; teenagers were liberated beings, with complex and varied social and emotional lives, and the characters in Skins aim to represent that.”
Another student in the survey added “I think the media portrays drug use as a much bigger deal than it actually is, in my experience there are actually a huge proportion of people from all social and professional backgrounds using recreational drugs either casually or on a regular basis.”
One of the statistics which UWE’s Professor of Addiction Studies, Martin Plant, has highlighted was that 50.8% of survey participants reported having a bad experience whilst on drugs and 44% said they had scared themselves because of their actions or body’s reaction to taking drugs. There is confidential help available to students to deal with drug related problems via UWE’s the Counselling and Psychological Services (see below for info).
Though we should not forget that we are likely to harm ourselves with legal drugs as pointed out by Criminology lecturer John Moore “all drugs carry risks and the evidence is clear that legal drugs will kill and harm far more of us than illegal ones. By focusing just on drugs which happen to be illegal we distort the reality of the harms we face.”
Useful Links
Drugs advice from UWE’s Student Services
Bristol Drugs Project
Want some help?
UWE’s Counselling and Psychological Service
Call in: Student Services Reception Desk,
3rd floor F block, Frenchay Campus.
Telephone: 0117 32 82558.