As far as undergraduate accommodation goes, Park View student village is the pinnacle of luxury.
The recently refurbished Newcastle University halls of residence boast en-suite rooms with double beds. Each flat contains a communal kitchen with a wide-screen TV.
Behind freshly painted purple and blue walls, there are laundry facilities students can control via smartphones, and a games room.
But the biggest selling point of all for this £75 million refurbished block — for anxious parents leaving their children for the first time — is the 24-hour security in the form of CCTV cameras and security officers, so, as the narrator of the virtual tour reassures viewers: ‘You feel safe and looked after at all times.’
Antonia Hoyle investigates how covid restrictions and dealers advertising on social media are fueling student drug use, following the death of Jeni Larmour (pictured)
How horribly ironic those words sound now. On October 3, 18-year-old fresher Jeni Larmour died in these halls, after she is believed to have taken the Class B drug ketamine. Hers was the first of four drug-related deaths in the city over that weekend.
Hours later school leaver Mark Johnston, 18, was pronounced dead after reportedly taking the Class A drug MDMA at a flat just minutes away. The following morning, a 21-year-old student from neighbouring Northumbria University died in hospital, also suspected to have taken MDMA.
And that afternoon, police were called back to Park View student village, where another female 18-year-old student had died, also believed to have taken ketamine.
An 18-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of supplying drugs after the second girl’s death. Since then, a further ten people have been arrested and released on bail. No charges are expected until the end of the month.
Architecture and urban planning student Jeni had arrived at Newcastle University less than 48 hours earlier. Her mother Sandra had barely returned to the family home in Northern Ireland before learning her daughter had died. As distraught Sandra paid a heartbreaking tribute to her ‘beautiful princess’ and ‘best friend’, parents of other newly-arrived students — most struggling to adapt to constrictions placed on them to curb the pandemic — were left shaken.
After all, if undergraduates on this cossetted Newcastle University campus aren’t safe, what hope for the rest of the nation’s students?
Yet as our investigation has found, both Newcastle University and Northumbria University, a former polytechnic also located in the heart of Newcastle, have long struggled to control their student drug use, which is rife among its undergraduate population.
School leaver Mark Johnston, 18, (pictured) was pronounced dead after reportedly taking the Class A drug MDMA
It appears the situation has only worsened — thanks not just to social media making the drugs more accessible, but also Covid restrictions meaning thousands of students — many away from home for the first time — are currently barricaded in halls of residence.
This month, it was revealed dealers were advertising their services to Newcastle students via Instagram, making obtaining drugs as easy as buying a pint of beer — or, indeed, easier, now bars close at 10pm.
Coronavirus infections are serious here — recently 1,752 of Newcastle University’s 28,000 students tested positive, while 770 positive tests were recorded at Northumbria University in one week. The following week, a further 749 students at Newcastle University tested positive.
Lockdown has left many students confined to halls of residence, where they take drugs without the supervision a pub or nightclub might offer. Equally important, many feel emotionally isolated — forced to mix only with those in their immediate vicinity, the lure of illegal substances as a social lubricant is strong.
A toxic mix, then, and most students seem to believe drug taking will continue, despite the tragic deaths.
‘It’s an accepted part of university life,’ one Northumbria University student, visiting the city’s bars with his flatmate, told the Mail. ‘It’s really easy to get drugs. They are definitely still going on despite Covid, and the 10pm curfew makes no difference.’
Jeni (pictured) who was raised in County Armagh, had been her school’s deputy head girl and had a job in her local shop
They are ubiquitous at post-curfew parties, he adds: ‘We have what are called “afters”, which are parties in someone’s flat after you’ve been out. They can go on until 9am the following morning. The deaths here will make me think twice.’
A ‘drugs amnesty bin’ has been installed for Newcastle University students to dispose of unwanted drugs. How many will use it remains to be seen.
‘When I first came to university it was a surprise to me how many people did drugs. At any party, on any night out, people will offer you some,’ says Maddie Roberts, 20, a third-year Business student at Newcastle University, who is campaigning for drugs testing kits, which reveal whether or not substances contain harmful components, to be made readily available on campus.
For Jeni Larmour, the prevalence of drugs must have seemed shocking. Raised by a loving family in a tight-knit rural community two miles outside Newtownhamilton in County Armagh, her grandparents and uncle both have farms across the road from her parents’ home.
A bright and ambitious young woman, Jeni had been her school’s deputy head girl. She had a job in her local shop, was involved in her school choir, and enjoyed being a member of the cadets. The idea she would take drugs seems incomprehensible to many.
‘I don’t believe she would willingly have taken drugs,’ says Piper Hebditch, 18, who met Jeni through the Army Cadets Round Britain sailing challenge in 2018.
Undergraduate students at Newcastle University have reported receiving cards with details of an Instagram account they could message for drugs (file image)
Piper, a student from Peterborough, recalls a ‘confident’ friend who liked a party but maintained a naïve wonder at the world: ‘She was so enthusiastic, even when we were up at 4am in 2 degree weather in the middle of the Irish Sea. The look of amazement on her face when we saw the seals or dolphins could warm even the coldest of hearts.’
And for all her confidence, as she waved goodbye to her mother from her £140-a-week city centre digs on Friday, October 2, it would be hard not to feel overwhelmed.
Before refurbishment, the halls she chose had a reputation for being the university’s party block. ‘If you need time alone or don’t really enjoy a party atmosphere, don’t choose here,’ says one online review, while ‘noisy’ and ‘great for socialising’ are other verdicts. Even if students wouldn’t have considered taking drugs before, the seed is soon planted in their mind.
This month, undergraduates reported cards left under their doors with details of an Instagram account they could message. ‘When you go to the account there are images of drugs and they tell you what they sell,’ said one 19-year-old psychology student from Newcastle University.
Other dealers are brazenly approaching students on the street. ‘The other day there was a red van driving around with a couple of lads in it. It pulled up next to me and one of them said, “Do you want any ket (ketamine)?” one Newcastle University student told the Mail. ‘I saw him pull up alongside other people, too. People will come up to you often and ask you if you want to buy drugs.’
A 20-year-old maths student at Newcastle University was convicted of dealing cocaine from his halls in 2005 (file image)
Some suppliers are as young as the students they sell to — indeed, they may be students themselves.
In 2005, a 20-year-old maths undergraduate at Newcastle University was convicted of dealing cocaine from his halls while in 2018 former Northumbria University geography graduate Omar Sharif, 24, was convicted of dealing MDMA and raping women he had drugged.
One Northumbria University student who admitted taking drugs regularly, said he sourced them through ‘a friend of a friend’, adding ‘the appeal of drugs (over alcohol) is that there’s no hangover and it’s cheaper’.
Whereas previous generations may have dabbled with cocaine, ketamine — an anaesthetic originally used as a horse tranquiliser — is now the most popular student drug, one that Maddie Roberts says is both ‘readily available’ and ‘not particularly expensive’.
One student from Northumbria University added: ‘People do ket to help them chill out. The appeal is that it is cheap. You might pay £10 for a cocktail but £5 for a drug which lasts all night.’
Yet it is a known depressant that can also cause spasms, agitation and high blood pressure, and prove fatal because of its effects on the heart. When it is cut with other powders to make it go further, it is particularly dangerous — a practice some experts believe has become particularly commonplace since lockdown.
‘At the start of the pandemic, there were fears that because of border closures there would be less drugs coming into the country,’ one drug charity worker explains. ‘It seems like that could be a good thing — but often that means the drugs would be cut with things to make the volumes go higher, and that’s where you get the bad batch of drugs.’
A Northumbria University student who uses ‘ket’ to ‘chill out’, heard about contaminated supplies of ketamine and MDMA from his dealer (file image)
He adds: ‘In normal circumstances these substances would be taken in clubs where there are paramedics.’
While police investigate, unconfirmed rumours abound that contaminated supplies of ketamine and MDMA caused the four deaths. ‘I heard about what happened to the girls through my dealer,’ says the Northumbria University student who uses ‘ket’ to ‘chill out’. He adds: ‘It was apparently a mix of ketamine and fentanyl (opioid). It was bad drugs and too much and they had no way to know.’
Peer pressure is making youngsters who wouldn’t have dreamed of taking drugs experiment.
‘It’s part of the university culture these days to do drugs,’ a female student at Northumbria University says. ‘I think more students do them than not. People will do it any time — I was with friends of friends in a pub toilet when they asked me to cough loudly so that other people couldn’t hear them sniffing cocaine. I didn’t feel like I could say no.’
Others are using drugs to self-medicate from the traumatic effects of lockdown on student life — with lectures moved online and the bright new start freshers had anticipated crumbling with every further restriction.
A Northumbria University student told us he believes drug use could also soar if students are confined to their halls. ‘With students being inside now they might do things they wouldn’t normally,’ he says. ‘A lot of the time people might go crazy because they come from a small town and have never experienced that party life and they just go nuts.’
University students were reportedly given £3 testing kits to check if drugs were safe or not in 2016 (file image)
Matthew Crawford, 20, a Civil Engineering student at Northumbria University, who says it is ‘stupidly easy’ to get hold of drugs, adds: ‘Even if you say no the first time, if you’re stuck in for two weeks with six people you don’t know it could be really easy to just think: “Yeah, you know what, I’ll do a bit of this.” ’ Sonya Jones, Young Person’s Team Manager at drug, alcohol and mental health charity We Are With You, stresses that students need to feel supported following the tragedy: ‘Many university students are cooped up in their rooms, unsure of when they will be let out and coming to terms with a very different first-year experience than they ever could have imagined.’
So what are both universities doing to help? Northumbria University has a zero tolerance approach to students taking drugs in university accommodation (it evicts them). If Newcastle University students are found in possession of illegal substances, however, their eviction is suspended if there are no further offences.
Its messages seem conflicting — in 2016, its students were reportedly given £3 testing kits to check if drugs were safe or not. But the following year, it teamed up with police to do random drug searches with sniffer dogs after drugs were found in halls.
A Newcastle University spokesperson said they worked hard to educate students about the dangers of drugs and support those affected by their own use.
A spokesperson for Northumbria University said: ‘We have a zero tolerance attitude to students taking drugs.’
Whether either strategy will work remains to be seen.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Condron and Alex Storey.