Under Pressure

The culture of casual drug use on university campuses

By Jaina Kelly, Staff Writer

The stress of studying in post-secondary can be very consuming for the average student who wants to do well while managing extra-curriculars, work responsibilities, and other priorities in their social lives. This stress leads many students to cope through methods that are less conventionally accepted by society, such as seeing a counselor or getting more daily exercise. Instead of these healthy lifestyle choices, many students decide to try drugs as a way of coping with the pressure of a university education.

A popular vice chosen by students as a stress-reliever is cannabis, and Lakehead is not excepted from this trend. MacLean’s magazine released a report in October 2017 on Canada’s journey toward cannabis legalization, where universities were polled on the frequency of their cannabis use. Lakehead had one of the highest percentages of daily marijuana users, coming in at 5% of students claiming that they choose to smoke up every day. Ahead of Lakehead, came Acadia at 8%, the University of Winnipeg at 7% and Mt. St. Vincent alongside Bishop’s at 6% of students claiming daily cannabis use.

Cannabis is not the only drug of choice for students looking to cope with stress. The Argus spoke to Adrian James, a registered social worker who currently works in the crisis section of a Simcoe County hospital. He filled us in on some of the most common reasons students turn to drugs. While some may expect recreational use to top the list, it doesn’t: sleep does. James explains that the excessive use of stimulants like caffeine, alongside perpetual stress, means that many students struggle to get a proper night’s rest. He tells The Argus that cannabis is reported highly among youth who are trying to sleep better. A lot of students may see themselves reflected in this image: frantic, speedy, and anxious during the day, followed by a mind that just won’t shut up when it’s time to get into bed.

Second, comes the use of prescription drugs like Concerta, Ritalin, and Adderall. These drugs are prescribed by physicians legally, but get re-sold from classmate to classmate, often as a focus drug during study periods. Less popular, but still used if available, students may also use speed or cocaine for the same focused effect. According to James, people in crisis often self-medicate with whatever they can get. Whether it’s alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, or heroin, people use drugs to cope with stress and trauma. This, in turn, creates a type of crisis we see now with opiates. Not just fentanyl, but any narcotic (sedative) will easily create dependency and extremely harsh withdrawal symptoms that often require a detox program. While many students feel they are actually improving their study habits or wellbeing by self-medicating with drugs, the drugs almost always become barriers to success. Without the supervision of a psychiatrist or a physician, students using prescription drugs to function will likely be unable to know the proper dosage or the danger of the side effects that un-monitored drug use  develops. Even in the case of cannabis, James explains that individuals with the genetic precursor to schizophrenia and who use it are more likely to develop the symptoms of this mental illness. He calls the medical definition of these coping behaviours “co-morbidity,” the term to describe when substance use is present alongside a medical or mental health disorder.

The Argus also spoke to a Lakehead student who will be called “Brett” in order to maintain their anonymity. Brett told us that they have observed different types of drug use through their time at  University residence. This included a “handful of people” using ADHD medication to stay up while partying, and other students who illegally obtained Xanax, MDMA and Percocet to use on a weekly basis. Brett explained that a drug like cannabis is obvious to residence staff because of its smell, so they resorted to using pills as a way of getting high while avoiding punishment. When asked why individuals might use pills when studying, Brett suggested that it’s entirely to do with “poor time management.” They say that amphetamines are built specifically so that you never want to stop what you’re doing, which leads to significant amounts of homework getting done really fast. Brett also told us that in his opinion, “student drug use is very prevalent, especially if alcohol is included. There was not a single night in residence where everybody was sober. People are going to find a substance they enjoy, and use it. To me it doesn’t matter if it’s ecstasy, or alcohol it’s still having an impact on students, and universities should be concerned over the issue of drug use. With fentanyl lacing becoming more common in street drugs which are used by students I think it’s time universities become more invested into sorting out the concern of drug use, whether it be better enforcement, or better education for students.”

Indeed, with the current reality of street drugs being laced with deadly substances like fentanyl, it seems that universities need to take action on better education in regard to drug use. While students may think that their occasional pill use is under control, it doesn’t take much to go from casual use to dependency. At the end of our interview, James concluded by telling The Argus that drugs are a big detriment to students and “not as helpful as we think they are.” He says that while a habit of using Adderall may appear helpful at the time, but students will often begin to depend on these drugs regularly. Without the proper monitoring of a doctor, even legal prescription drugs can have unpleasant and even crippling side effects. And now, with the looming legalization of cannabis, people are feeling more comfortable with recreational use. However, James warns that even cannabis can be a problem for daily users and that it poses a greater risk of dependency than many want to believe. He says, “one of my bigger things with students is that they don’t see their drug use as problematic, and that’s a big barrier to change.”