Student Drug Use in Higher Education: an evidence synthesis

May 2022-July 2022, funded by Unite Students


Aim: To conduct a scoping review of the literature on drug use by students in higher education to inform the development of policy and practice in the UK.


  • To provide an accessible, clearly articulated and succinct summative report on what is known from the current evidence on drug use by students in higher education.
  • To provide evidence based recommendations on what policies and practices should be put in place to reduce harm and support student wellbeing.

Methods: A scoping studies framework (Arksey and O’Malley, 2005) was adopted to guide the search of the body of literature, map and review the state of research evidence, and identify knowledge gaps. The review focussed on research and interventions carried out within the UK (England, Scotland, N.Ireland, Wales) but also looked at the wider international literature to assess the overall state of knowledge, identify key issues and consider transferability to the UK context. Grey literature published by relevant bodies was included.

Key findings

  • 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 programmes, 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

Research team: Joint PI: Trish Hafford-Letchfield (University of Strathclyde) and Betsy Thom (Middlesex University); Arun Sondhi (associate, Middlesex University), Rachel Herring (Middlesex University)

: Betsy Thom,