As a recent survey undertaken by The University Observer reveals UCD students’ attitude toward drink and drugs, Peter Molloy takes a closer look at the issue of substance abuse on campus.
A survey conducted by The University Observer within the past fortnight has shed a revealing light on UCD’s student population and their attitudes to drink and drugs. Contemporary university life and alcohol still appear to go to hand-in-hand, with more than four fifths of students feeling that drink plays a significant role in college life, while more than two thirds admitted to having at least on occasion consumed so much alcohol that they were left unable to recall all or some of the night before.
On the question of drugs, responses by UCD students represent some equally unpalatable home truths. More than one third of students surveyed had sampled illegal drugs on at least one previous occasion, with cannabis being the ubiquitous substance of choice.
Some respondents had also tried other drugs, with both ecstasy and cocaine having proportionally increased in favour, in contrast to similar previous surveys. A significant portion of students questioned – more than one third again – felt that drugs were easy to obtain.
For Chris Murphy, an experienced substance abuse counsellor and Director of the Crosscare Drug and Alcohol Programme, the findings are not particularly surprising.
“It doesn’t surprise me to hear that they are seen as easy to obtain, or that they are seen as easy to obtain in college. Most people would say that if you are seeking cannabis, or ecstasy, and even cocaine, that it doesn’t take that long to track it down.”
However, Murphy is particularly concerned about an increase in those students who have sampled “harder” drugs such as cocaine.
“That’s one sixth approximately, compared with the 100 per cent who had tried cannabis, which isn’t a surprise. What’s surprising is that cocaine has crept up to the same level as ecstasy over the last ten or 15 years. Definitely, the usage of cocaine has increased. Even since 2000, there’s been a definite growth in cocaine, and it’s not just in Dublin – it’s around Ireland. It’s cheaper, and there’s more of it around.”
The inherent danger of drugs like cocaine and ecstasy, continues Murphy, lies in the length of time it can take for negative side-effects to begin to manifest themselves. Regular drug users, he says, can go for long periods before their usage begins to exact its toll upon their health and personal lives.
“The problems that link in with any of these drugs usually take a few years to come to pass. On average, a person would be using cocaine for four years before they’d be running into problems. It’s like there’s a honeymoon period, but the honeymoon period is followed by difficult problems. In the case of cocaine, [those problems would include] depression, not being able to face a weekend without it, or getting into more alcohol because of having more cocaine and losing your self-control.”
The counsellor believes that a mature, open debate about the role drugs play in student is extremely difficult to realise.
“The question of whether you can have any safe use of drugs like cannabis is another one. The fact is that it is illegal to use or to have cannabis at the moment. This makes it difficult to discuss safer ways of using cannabis, and the same about cocaine or discussing whether there are any safe levels of use. It makes it difficult for a place like a college or a school to discuss, because essentially there’s a danger of looking like condoning the drug.”
“It doesn’t surprise me to hear that they are seen as easy to obtain, or that they are seen as easy to obtain in college”
Murphy is equally worried about statistics which showed a continuing prevalence towards excessive use of alcohol on the part of UCD students.
“Again, people are drinking more and drinking younger. The treatment services are already ending up with people coming in for treatment for alcohol problems at a much earlier age than before. It’s going to result in more people having problems.”
“More than 90 per cent of adults do drink alcohol, and up to ten per cent of those people have a problem at one stage of their lives. So I really feel that there isn’t enough attention paid to getting through your life without developing a drinking problem; how to manage your drinking.”
The expert is especially critical of the way in which alcohol abuse is allowed to slip under the radar when it comes to thinking on substance misuse; a failing which it seems is replicated on a macro level in UCD.
“It is a big industry, and therefore it provides jobs. The Government are in a dilemma when it comes to cutting down on it, and the [drinks] industry would be very resistant for instance to alcohol being included in drugs policies, or even any associations between alcohol and drugs. They don’t like people to become aware of the fact that alcohol is a drug.”
Dissatisfaction over the survey’s findings is shared by Students’ Union President Aodhán Ó Deá, who commented that there “definitely is a problem”.
Reacting to statistics on alcohol consumption, Ó Deá remarks that;
“It’s something that we, as students, have to start to recognise isn’t healthy – it’s not a good thing. It’s a cause for concern, particularly with the amount of students who feel that alcohol is a big part of student life; it shouldn’t be. It has been for a long time, it’s kind of instilled in how we conceive fun in UCD… [but] it’s something we have to campaign against”.
Speaking of an increase in anti-social behaviour on campus, Ó Deá put the problem down to alcohol more than drug abuse. “I think a problem as well is that people are drinking on campus more, and generally, people are going towards vodka more. People are drinking more and more spirits to get drunker and drunker quicker. It [may be] easy to find drugs on campus, but it’s the alcohol statistics that are particularly shocking.”
Yet he is guardedly positive about the prospect of some tangible reduction being made upon both alcohol and drug misuse in UCD.
“Measures have [already] been put in place. We don’t sell extremely cheap drink in the student bars; we don’t sell beer or spirits on campus. Certain people in the university want places even outside or around the perimeter of the university, such as Spar, not to sell vodka and cans of beer.”
Chris Murphy feels that attempts to reduce student substance misuse can be successful, but face an uphill battle.
“I would be very much in favour of helping people – individuals and groups – to become more aware of the skills of managing your drinking; and I would think that could be helped in a place like UCD. But I do think that society as a whole needs to join in – you can’t single out schools and colleges. The whole of society does need to change, and to address this question collectively.”
However, Murphy is dubious as to whether or not the current economic climate would pose any particular check to the enthusiasm of some for illicit substances.
“I really don’t know if the recession has impinged on the number of people using drugs. It could be a couple of years before the impact of that on drug using would show up. You could speculate that it could move either way; that it could end up with more people using drugs because there’s more people with less to do if they’re losing jobs. [Alternatively], it might work the other way, that people are more careful with how they use their money.”
Alcohol and Drugs on Campus: The figures
67.9 per cent of students surveyed stated that on at least one previous occasion, they had drunk so much that they couldn’t remember all or some of the night before.
81.7 per cent of students believe that alcohol is a big part of college life.
14.9 per cent of respondents believed that drug use is a big part of college life.
41.8 per cent of students surveyed admitted to having taken illegal drugs at least once.
Of those students who acknowledged having previously taken drugs:
100 per cent had tried cannabis,
16 per cent had tried ecstasy,
15.1 per cent had tried cocaine,
8 per cent had tried LSD
40.7 per cent of students surveyed felt that drugs are easy to obtain.
19.7 per cent believed that drugs are easy to obtain on campus.
18.2 per cent of students had been offered drugs in UCD.