Lockdown Boredom At Universities Is Fuelling Drug Taking Among Students

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt
"We can be having dinner with two friends and someone brings a bag of coke out and we all do it because we're so genuinely bored and need an outlet at the moment," says 20-year-old Jasmine*.
The start of university is often a magical time for young people: leaving home for the first time, the broadening of sexual horizons, learning to cook, getting wasted with your new mates and pondering the crippling debt you're accumulating. However, this year is a little different. Thousands of students have been forced into isolation at their university campuses after mass coronavirus outbreaks were confirmed, and others have been banned from hosting parties, socialising or mixing with other households. Students are also unable to socialise at restaurants or clubs due to the government's 10pm curfew and social distancing rules. The lack of freedom is getting to students, and some have been turning to drugs.
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"I've been taking drugs since uni started," Jasmine, a history student at UCL, tells Refinery29 UK. "I never took them before, but I've mostly been taking ketamine and cocaine." She adds that while there hasn't been a campus lockdown, there has been little to do other than take drugs. "Obviously when clubs were open, taking drugs was more of a social outlet and to do exclusively when we were about to go out or to a house party. But now it's way more normalised to do it at home because there's nothing to do."
Jasmine adds: "We can be having dinner with two friends and someone brings a bag of coke and we all do it because we're so genuinely bored and need an outlet." Jasmine says that since starting university, she has seen her drug intake go up, especially with harder class A drugs. "There's definitely a vibe that we don't have to worry as much because we're not going clubbing so we can be more on top of how much we're taking. But we're actually doing the same amount, if not more, when we're just in the flat together."
She continues: "Plus, the six people limit and the news has been really anxiety-inducing, so it's definitely a bit of a weight off my shoulders to get high and not have to think about it."

We can be having dinner with two friends and someone brings a bag of coke out and we all do it because we're so genuinely bored and need an outlet at the moment.

Jasmine*, 20, ucl
This week an investigation was launched after four young people died in drug-related deaths. One of the victims, Jeni Larmour, an 18-year-old Newcastle University student, is believed to have fallen ill at her student accommodation on Saturday after taking ketamine. Another 18-year-old female student at Newcastle University died at the same accommodation as Larmour on Sunday and is also believed to have taken ketamine. Separately, a 21-year-old Northumbria University student and an 18-year-old in Washington, Tyne and Wear, died after reportedly taking MDMA. Police have said they have arrested 10 people in connection with the four deaths.
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A 2018 study, carried out by drug charity Release and the National Union of Students (NUS), found that most university students take illegal drugs to have fun but a third use them to deal with stress, while a fifth use them to self-medicate mental health problems. However, the survey found that the vast majority (80%) of students who take drugs do so for recreational purposes.

When I came back to uni a month ago, I didn't have any independent desire to take drugs, but they were offered to me and it kinda just happened.

Megan*, 20, Nottingham university
Megan*, a 20-year-old student at Nottingham University, tells Refinery29 that before university she had never taken drugs because she suffers from anxiety. However, since starting university last month, she has been taking ketamine, laughing gas and cocaine. "It's the first time I've exposed myself to it. I had tried to avoid them because of my anxiety, but there's not much else to do," she tells Refinery29. "We have uni online now so there's nothing to do before or after lectures. My housemate smokes weed all day and no one else is doing anything."
Megan believes that the coronavirus pandemic and being locked down at home with their families is the reason why so many students are turning to drugs at university. "The general vibe was wanting to make the most of being back at uni and it was associated with taking drugs, getting fucked and getting wasted. But now everyone is desperate to find ways to have fun because we have limited options. We all want to get that university experience, which, for a lot of people and my friends, is just taking drugs and getting high and adrenaline."
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It doesn't boil down to peer pressure, she adds; it's more that you're likely to take drugs if you're exposed to them. "When I came back to uni a month ago, I didn't have any independent desire to take drugs, but they were offered to me and it kinda just happened. I felt that because I was in that environment, I didn't feel the need to stop myself from taking drugs."
Harriet*, 21, who has returned to university for her second year, agrees. "I had only ever smoked weed (and occasionally tried laughing gas) before coming to uni," she says, adding that she feels more comfortable taking harder drugs — such as ketamine — in a "safe space" with her friends. "Now I take drugs semi-regularly. I don't drink so I tend to use ket in the place of alcohol if that suits the vibe. I've never personally had a bad experience, though people around me have."
With clubs closed, students have been finding it difficult to socialise with friends and some say the limited options have made it more dangerous for those who are trying drugs for the first time.

I don't drink so I tend to use ketamine in the place of alcohol if that suits the vibe.

Harriet*, 21, cambridge university
"There's not much else to do than go from bar to bar and end up at someone's flat to continue the night," says Natalie*, a 22-year-old media student at Aberdeen's Robert Gordon University. "In some ways it does pressure you because I'm sure everyone can agree it's hard to say no when everyone is involved. Before the pandemic, it would be more of a regular occurrence with events happening each month."
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She continues: "Clubs were 'safe spaces' to take party drugs, not at all condoned of course, but there was security on hand and staff always knew what to look out for when it was obvious that someone was not okay. My friends and I have been taking drugs for years and we would know how to get help straightaway if something went wrong. I'm worried for younger students who are trying drugs for the first time who don't know what to do."
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please visit FRANK or call 0300 123 6600 for friendly, confidential advice. Lines are open 24 hours a day.

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