The fact that international students are more likely to use drugs may be due to their ‘possibly being a little more adventurous’ on average, as illustrated by the fact that they are studying abroad in the first place, says Ingmar Franken, a Professor of Clinical Psychology at ESSB.

More than half of the nearly 1,600 EUR students surveyed had used drugs in the preceding twelve months. The rise in the overall number of international students at EUR has probably raised the drug consumption rate, Franken thinks. Few other data about student drug use are available. The Trimbos Institute of Mental Health and Addiction annually conducts research on drug use among young people and party animals. Students are well represented in those categories, but with those figures, it is not possible to infer general truths about students alone.

Has the number actually doubled?

Due to the lack of comparable studies, it is hard to identify trends. Credo, the magazine published by Cedo Nulli, the Faculty of Social Sciences’ study society, did conduct a smaller-scale survey of EUR students in 2014. It showed that three in ten students had used drugs at some point in their lives. Comparing to EM’s survey, the number of drug users at EUR has almost doubled in the last four years.

Credo’s definition of ‘having used drugs’ was not entirely the same as EM’s. While EM asked students if they had taken any drugs in the past twelve months, Credo asked if they had ever used drugs at any point in their lives. Nevertheless, it seems safe to assume that drug use levels have risen considerably in just one generation of EUR students, particularly since Credo’s definition was actually broader than EM’s.

Some four years ago, Ingmar Franken conducted a small survey of his own among psychology students. “I arrived at a much lower percentage – some 20 per cent.” Franken suspects EM’s survey may have involved some mild selection bias. “When you’re asking questions about taboo subjects, the majority of respondents will generally be people who are interested in the subject, meaning the percentages you end up with may be a little higher than they actually are. But this survey did have a lot of respondents, so I think it’s clear that there has been an increase.”

XTC continues to be popular

XTC/MDMA continues to be the most popular drug, followed by nitrous oxide and cocaine. In terms of the number of users per faculty, the 2014 Credo survey presented a similar picture to EM’s. RSM has many students who use drugs (35 per cent in 2014, up to 59 presently), ESHCC student score high as well. Medical students had the lowest score in 2014 and still do now, but drug use is on the rise at Erasmus MC, too: 44 per cent, up from roughly 25 per cent four years ago. 1

According to EUR’s Rector, Rutger Engels, it is hard to compare the figures obtained from the Credo and EM surveys, but the ‘absolute numbers show that drug use is currently popular with students’. “Most of them use drugs recreationally, every once and then, when clubbing. Thankfully, there are few students who use drugs every week,” says Engels, who served as the Trimbos Institute of Mental Health and Addiction’s Managing Director prior to being appointed to the EUR rectorship.

There is always a risk of a person’s body reacting the wrong way to a pill, says Franken, discussing the consequences of XTC use. “But since most of the survey respondents indicated they take pills recreationally, you might almost say that they are taking drugs responsibly. In addition, XTC is hardly very addictive.” It is largely unclear at present what long-term effects XTC has on users. “It’s only been on the market for about twenty years. Some studies show that continuous use may cause brain damage, but other studies show that the damage isn’t actually too bad. But using illegal drugs always poses a risk.”

Drug use at exam not allowed

One thing Engels also finds concerning is the use of drugs to improve study performance. Some 9 per cent of the students who took the survey indicated that they take drugs while studying, the drug of choice generally being Ritalin, an amphetamine-like substance used to treat ADHD. Less known substances such as modafinil and concerta are also mentioned. “It makes sense to have a good cup of coffee while revising, but I reject the notion of using drugs to improve your performance,” says Engels. “I think that being a successful student is a matter of proper planning, good focus and sufficient rest during your breaks. That is the best way to prepare for an exam. As for taking drugs just before sitting an exam, please note that drug use is not actually allowed on the campus.”

So why exactly do students use drugs? This question was answered by 485 respondents. The most common answer was, “For fun.” Some respondents said they felt drug use was normal in their social circle. Curiosity as to the drug’s effects was another popular answer. Most students indicated that XTC enriched their clubbing or festival experience, although a few students indicated they used drugs in a completely different manner. “Back in the old days, I used to go backpacking in Europe, and I would drop acid on my own while sitting under a tree with a notebook in my hand, wrapped in a sleeping bag. To me, that is the real experience of using drugs, rather than spending the night in the Maas Silo with pupils as big as saucers, grinding your teeth after inhaling a snort”, as a mature first-year student put it.

Twee uur kotsen

EM also asked the respondents to share their negative experiences with drugs. 178 of the 858 respondents who had used drugs did so. In most cases, the negative experiences in question involved bad XTC trips. Weed (which was otherwise excluded from this survey as it is semi-legal) and LSD also received several mentions. Many students mentioned the dreaded XTC hangover, which sometimes comes with temporary paranoia and panic attacks. “I was so dehydrated I spent two hours throwing up”, said one student about a bad trip. “XTC hangovers are absolutely ridiculous”, wrote another. Several students said they had had to visit a hospital after a bad trip.

A few students described extremely unpleasant experiences. One student said s/he had developed an anxiety disorder due to regular XTC use. Another related how a friend had died on her way to a hospital after having taken a drug cocktail.

Other students had had negative experiences with dealers: ketamine that turned out to be crushed paracetamol, fights, or dealers who either ran off with the money or provided smaller quantities of drugs than agreed.

It should be noted that 243 students said they had not had any negative experiences with drugs (the remaining respondents chose not to answer the question).

‘Doesn’t appeal’

Slightly less than half (46 per cent) of the EM survey respondents said they had not used any drugs in the previous twelve months. Three-quarters of them provided a simple reason: “It doesn’t appeal to me.” Sixty per cent said they did not use drugs because it constitutes a health hazard, and four in ten ‘teetotallers’ said taking drugs frightened them. Even so, there were some students in this group who seemed susceptible to the idea of using drugs. Ten per cent said they would like to give it a try, and 16 per cent said they had not used drugs because they didn’t know where to get them.

Others said they used to take drugs, but no longer felt a need to do so. “I used to take a lot of drugs (XTC, 4fmp, coke, speed, nitrous oxide, magic truffles), but I’m no longer interested in them. I haven’t used anything in the last eighteen months”, a third year student said. Another student mentioned he only wished to use drugs when he felt free from anxiety, and he hadn’t been anxiety-free in the last year. Lastly, a few students indicated they did not wish to use drugs because of their religion.

The Rector, Rutger Engels, believes the survey does not constitute grounds to intensify preventive programmes or the assistance given to individual students with addiction problems.

Design of the study

EM surveyed nearly 1,600 students on their drug use. 800 men and 768 women took the survey (16 students chose not to reveal their gender). Students of all faculties were represented in the survey in varying numbers, ranging from 21 respondents at the School of Philosophy to 398 respondents at the Rotterdam School of Management. The editorial board of EM is aware that its findings may not be entirely representative due to selection bias. It is possible that students who are interested in drug use were more likely to take the survey. It is also possible that students whose drug use is problematic gave socially desirable answers or did not take the survey at all.

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  1. ESPhil was not included in this story, since only 21 philosophy students took the survey. ↩︎