Sobriety: The Great University Taboo


No matter how much cannabis a student smokes, they will never come close to the true rebellion of abstinence.

And it is now demonstrably true. In 2018, 56% of university students openly admitted (probably with little resistance) to taking illegal drugs, compared with less than 10% of the overall population in England and Wales. Drug culture in universities is no longer a shady underground affair, where you approach some man smoking in his trench coat under a faulty street lamp in hope that he has a couple of grams. It is omnipresent and the dissenters are now those who refuse it.

It is not hard to reject drugs when they are offered. The old-fashioned advice of “Just say no” may be ridiculed, but it works. Most students will immediately stop asking you and defend your freedom to make that choice.

But the silence that follows is revealing.

The warmth of the room ceases. Awkward and bemused faces turn to you. They accept your right to say no, but they also think you are wrong. A dozen judgements are printed from the students and are pinned irrevocably onto your lapel for the whole university to see. Antisocial, boring, puritanical, unfashionable, stupid…

Peer pressure works on two basic levels. The first is the insistence. This is the most overt kind and it is largely understood and is easy enough to avoid. People who insist too much expose themselves to criticism and others naturally defend you. But the second type is far more malignant. It says that you are making things difficult for yourself, and that conformity would be easier than self-restraint. Like electricity, we so often follow the path of least resistance.

Insistence is not necessary to make students feel uncomfortable about refusing drugs. When enough people truly believe that there is no valid reason to refrain from taking them, they withdraw your right to rationally object. Instead, you are subject to pseudo-psychoanalysis and will probably be deemed to have a character defect, as listed above.

I am aware that I am in the minority. Drug culture is normal, and it is a part of student life. I cannot expect to change the minds of students that drugs (especially cannabis) are far more dangerous and harmful than they believe, but I at least hope to show them that we dissenters are not in any way deficient.

Where do these illicit substances come from anyway? According to The Guardian, around £5bn worth of drugs are traded by the Albanian mafia; a nasty gang of violent thugs responsible for heists, murders, sex-trafficking, and immigrant smuggling. They own three-quarters of the brothels that operate in England alone. Boycotting Wetherspoons and only buying organic broccoli suddenly seems like a banal gesture, when compared to the gross injustice of this industrial slaughterhouse.

Passing around a joint of cannabis is much like playing a game of Russian roulette. Most people walk away unharmed. For others, pulling the trigger awakes dormant mental illnesses and irreversibly changes them. If you are fortunate enough to not know anybody like this or do not believe it, start by reading Henry’s Demons, a haunting account of how a student can be damaged, potentially by cannabis, with a serious mental illness.

Yet cannabis is marketed as a safe and soft drug. In fact, soft drugs according to the government of the Netherlands include “cannabis, mescaline, psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, iboga, and DMT”, though the government also claims that cannabis is illegal whilst “tolerating” it in coffee shops.

And we have not yet accounted for what else you are putting in your body. The truth is: you do not know.

Street drugs are known to be laced with rat-poison and all sorts of other hideous chemicals, even more dangerous than the substance itself. Numerous tragedies have happened at universities and concerts, where students believed that what they were taking was safe. These end in the loss of life far too young.

Drugs are dangerous, we know that. It can be difficult to admit things that bring pleasure to us are wrong, precisely because they are pleasurable, especially when the harm is often out of sight. And that is why I do not ask it from you. It is something that you will have to discover for yourself, hopefully with minimal harm caused to you and those around you. I simply ask you not to judge us who refuse them and truly try to understand why we do. It is not easy to be a dissenter in a place where the ever-present drug culture dominates.

I can only imagine what it must be like not to drink…

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