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Investigation: Drugs in Oxford

The discovery of cocaine traces in a number of locations across Oxford suggests that for some students at least, university is a time for experimentating with recreational drugs. How prevalent is drug use in Oxford University?

C+ has analysed drug use across the university by surveying over six hundred students and using swab tests to sample locations across the city for traces of cocaine.

Swab tests suggest that cocaine has been taken in several Oxford locations. Toilets in the Oxford Union, the Old Bodleian Library, the Radcliffe Camera, the Manor Road Building , the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, and the Oxford University Language centre, as reported on the front page.

Students who answered the survey were asked about what drugs they had taken in the last year. The survey was distributed by email and social media and had received 650 responses at the time of writing.


Use of alcohol is most common, with 94% of respondents claiming to have drunk recently. According to our survey, tobacco use is higher amongst the Oxford student population, at 54%, than in the UK as a whole.

Among illegal drugs, the most common was cannabis: over a third of respondents (281) admitted to using marijuana or hashish. Over one in five students (22%) admitted to MDMA use.

Strikingly, results suggest that cocaine use is relatively common, with 11% of respondents claiming to have taken the drug over the last year.

The data gathered imply that a minority of students take a wider variety of narcotics. Eighteen of those surveyed said they had used heroin. An equally low number of students admitted to taking khat and crack over the past twelve months, whilst 5% of students said they had tried LSD.

A relatively high number of respondents also claimed to have used nitrous oxide (15%). The drug has recently seen increased use among clubs in Europe, in the form of ‘laughing gas’.

Significant numbers of students are also taking ‘magic mushrooms’, with 7% of respondents admitting to having ingested the psychedelic drug.

When presented with the data, a spokesperson for Oxford University stated, “The survey is of concern, and while research demonstrates that most young people leave drugs and alcohol behind as they become clearer about who they are and what they want to achieve in life, the University and colleges advise and encourage those who are currently abusing any kind of substance to seek help.

“We strongly advise students against taking any drugs that have not been prescribed to them as this could involve putting their health at risk. If students want help to address these matters, they will find a range of support available on many levels – college, university, Student Union, and the local NHS services. Information about this support is promoted to students by the University, the colleges and the Student Union.”


According to the survey, there is relatively little evidence of ‘legal highs’, such as mephedrone, which have recently been the subject of debate in the media.

When C+ spoke to forensic toxicology scientist Dr Simon Elliott of ROAR Forensics and David Nutt’s ‘DrugScience’ committee, he highlighted this as “particularly interesting”.

Elliott commented, “Even if these featured in the 3% of ‘Other’ drugs, the suggested use would be proportionately low which is unexpected based on my forensic experience of current casework.”

Elliott also drew attention to the risks of MDMA and amphetamines being cut with unknown drugs: “Users should be aware that such products may also contain other substances (potentially as a complete substitute for the expected contents). As such it is important that students have access to the necessary information to provide an objective view of drugs and drug harm, to help and educate where required.”

9% of students also admitted to taking “other” drugs, not listed in the survey. The most popular response for this category was ketamine. A small minority of students said that they have used prescription drugs for recreational purposes.

In the survey, C+ consulted respondents on their views about the extent of drug use in the university. Almost half of respondents (48%) feel drug use is “average” amongst the student body in Oxford. Only 31% believe usage is “rare”.


However, others saw drug use as more widespread: just over 20% of the sample claimed that drug use in Oxford was either “common” or “ubiquitous”. Despite this, only 23% of respondents said they used drugs at least monthly. Nearly half of those surveyed claimed not to have taken recreational drugs at all in the past twelve months.

Furthermore, the data suggests that only a small number of people have been drawn into drug culture since their arrival at Oxford. When asked about whether they had used drugs prior to university, around half of respondents answered “no” or “not applicable”.

Charlotte Hendy, OUSU’s Vice-President for Welfare, told C+, “We encourage all students to be mindful of their health and wellbeing whilst at Oxford, and to avoid needle-sharing and other dangerous practices associated with drug use. Our Student Advice Service provides free, confidential advice to any student requiring it – just email [email protected].

“OUSU is also partnering with the Lifeline Project, a drug and alcohol abuse charity. We are currently running a survey for all students, to ensure that the services OUSU and Lifeline provide is tailored to what students want and need. OUSU is looking to you to inform the direction we take with this partnership, to ensure that we provide you with the services you need.”

A spokesperson for the Lifeline Project commented, “University students are in a unique social and economic position – receiving maintenance grants and loans in large amounts at precisely the same time that they are propelled into independent living, many for the first time away from home and family.

They went on, “There is a strong social focus within student bodies in the UK on alcohol and increasingly, as the OUSU survey reveals, on illicit substances.”
“Lifeline Project is pleased to be working with OUSU in supporting the pathway to the Recovery service in Oxford where students can receive information, counselling and interventions around alcohol and substance misuse.”

Lifeline Oxfordshire is based on Marston Road in Cowley, and their partnership with OUSU was announced in Tom Rutland’s OUSU Presidential bulletin email earlier this week.

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