Student Drug Use in Higher Education: an Evidence Synthesis

Trish Hafford-Letchfield, Arun Sondhi, Betsy Thom, Rachel Herring

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


This report was commissioned by UNITE and us a scoping review and evidence synthesis of what is known from the published literature on student drug use in higher education in the UK and internationally.
Key messages were:
• There is a lack of rigorous research on the prevalence and patterns of drug use among students in the UK; evidence regarding variations within and across universities and regions is missing.
• Motivations for using drugs include reasons perceived by students as positive - pleasurable effects, the enhancement of learning, affiliation with peers - as well as negative - coping with stress, financial problems, and mental health issues; use is also associated with pressures to achieve academically and socially.
• There is evidence from other countries that drug use and drug-related harms are associated with the experiences of discrimination, stigmatisation and marginalisation experienced by some groups of students, including LGBTQ+ students and students from some ethnic minority groups.
• Evidence regarding access to drugs and use of drugs on university campuses or in university accommodation is lacking; the context of drug use is not well documented.
• A range of drug-related harms have been reported including physical and mental health problems, financial difficulties and, to a lesser extent, encounters with the criminal justice system. Research considering the impact of student drug use on families and communities is lacking.
• Students' strategies to manage the risks of drug use and to protect themselves and others are not addressed in the literature.
• The evidence regarding interventions is poor. Three intervention approaches emerge as 'promising': recovery colleges, digital interventions, and identification and brief advice approaches.
• There is no research examining the impact of whole population approaches or universal prevention approaches on student populations.
• There is some evidence to support the importance of developing and implementing interventions (both content and delivery methods) in partnership with the target groups.
• There is some evidence to support the development of university policies that avoid a zero-tolerance approach and promote a harm reduction approach
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationGlasgow
PublisherUniversity of Strathclyde
Number of pages85
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 15 Nov 2022


  • students
  • drugs
  • higher education
  • harm reduction
  • interventions
  • minoritised students
  • scoping review
  • evidence synthesis


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