Alcohol use and abuse

Alcohol is a drug, albeit a legal one; indeed, it is the UK’s favourite drug.

Alcohol abuse is a growing social problem nationwide, one which is of particular concern among younger age groups.

You should think about the effects that drinking has on your body and your mental state. Some students choose not to drink alcohol at all; many others drink safely without any problems or impact on their studies – but not all.

Our alcohol policy is designed to advise of the potential dangers of the abuse of alcohol, to establish some guidelines for its proper use, and to encourage a culture of self-regulation and a respect and care for others and oneself.

Health and Safety issues

Official guidelines recommend to reduce the health risks associated with drinking alcohol, that both men and women:

  • do not regularly drink more than 14 units a week
  • spread drinking alcohol over three days or more, if consuming this much
  • have a few alcohol-free days each week

As a general rule 1 unit is half a pint of beer, lager or cider, one small glass (125ml) of wine, or a 25 ml measure of spirit. Researchers define "Binge Drinking" as having at least 6 units in one session for women and 8 units in one session for men. Binge drinking all 14 units at once is bad for your health and potentially very dangerous. Some useful information on the amount of alcohol in commercial drinks can be found on the Drinkaware web site and wider advice from the Portman Group web site. You might be surprised to find that a small (125ml) glass of Red Jacob’s Creek wine (as a popular example) contains 1.6 units of alcohol.

It takes your body about an hour to process one unit of alcohol, so you need to pace your drinking so that your body can cope. Also, metabolisms vary, and you need to know how much you can safely drink and remain in control of yourself and the social situation. The effects can start within ten minutes and depending on the individual can last for many hours. Slurred speech, vomiting, loss of balance, distorted vision are just some of the more immediate effects of drinking on the body, if you consume too much at once; so is unconsciousness.

Very high amounts consumed rapidly can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal, as can the combination of unconsciousness and vomiting. Excessive consumption can lead to anti-social conduct, aggression, intimidation or violence. Long-term use is linked to liver damage, heart disease, brain damage, some cancers and several disorders of the reproductive system and sexual organs. Remember that is possible to remain under the influence of alcohol the morning after a heavy drinking bout. Take 48 hours without alcohol to allow your system to recover.

You should not drink alcohol if:

  • You might be pregnant
  • You will be operating machinery, or equipment in a practical class
  • You may be driving car. CUSU has a policy that no-one should drive on official CUSU business within 48 hours of drinking.

National statistics indicate that the prevalence of hazardous drinking in the 16-24 age group is over 50% for men and 30% for women – the highest prevalence for any age group. In common with many University towns the local NHS has expressed concern about the level of alcohol related admissions to Addenbrookes.

Alcohol is an addictive drug and there is strong evidence that abuse of alcohol and alcohol dependency may stem from drinking in order to relieve stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts – all of which are not uncommon among a student population, and for all of which help is available. Alcohol is a depressant and can exacerbate pre-existing depressive conditions as well as precipitate them.

If your drinking habits are affecting your life and studying and you need help with the issues underlying your drinking, or if you know somebody in this situation, the following organisations can advise and help:

University Counselling Service (01223 332865)
The Cambridge Drug And Alcohol Team (01223 723020)
Drinksense  185 East Rd Cambridge CB1 1BG (01223 350599)
Drinkline for confidential help: 0800 7 314 314 (open 24 hours)
Alcoholics Anonymous

Personal safety

Watch the College's Safe Night OUT film

An estimated 23,000 alcohol-related incidents take place in Britain each week. Being on the streets under the influence of drink puts you at greater risk of physical or sexual assault. So for safety, stay with friends, look out for your friends, don’t walk back to your College alone at night, and take extra care on night-time roads. You should also be alert to the risk of drink spiking.

Antisocial behaviour is often associated with excessive drinking. Although alcohol is a depressant it can exaggerate whatever mood you are in when you start drinking. When drunk, you may unwittingly seem more threatening to others, influencing how they react to you. Avoiding violence when not fully in control of yourself can be difficult; your perceptions will be dulled, it will take you longer to react and think things through, and your judgement may be reduced. Aim to talk your way out a situation, avoiding aggressive language, and using open body language. But always bear in mind that when you have been drinking, you will be more vulnerable to difficulties and danger than when sober.


Alcohol still plays a major part in the social life of most students.  The College wants to encourage students who choose to use alcohol to use it carefully, and not to abuse it. It is both foolish and dangerous to encourage others to drink more than they ought or wish by forcing them to participate in competitive drinking games – and in forms of ‘initiation’ to some student societies.

Those responsible for organising College functions should ensure that excessive quantities of alcohol are not available to guests and that only sensible drinking takes place. This also holds for events organised by the JCR and the MCR and by College clubs and societies. The National Union of Students runs an alcohol awareness campaign which provides useful advice. Organisers of student events should always make sure that good quality alcohol free alternative drinks are available. A strong social emphasis on alcohol can be insensitive to students whose cultures do not endorse the use of alcohol and to those who choose not to use it.

College Staff have a responsibility to ensure that dinner in Hall is enjoyable and civilised for all present. Diners should exercise restraint and not drink to excess; hosts should look after their guests and friends look after one another. If a diner does not exercise restraint, he or she will be asked to leave the Hall, as will any diners playing competitive drinking games who do not stop when asked. Diners whose drinking leads them to behave without consideration for the Staff may also be required to leave.

The College Bar Staff have a responsibility to ensure that College members and their guests do not drink to excess; those who do will be refused further service and may be asked to leave the Bar. It is illegal for Bar staff to serve someone who is clearly inebriated.

Student societies that have initiations which involve drinking, and encouraging other to drink, to excess are strongly discouraged; drunken behaviour resulting from such initiations will be considered to be in breach of discipline (see next section).

Disciplinary matters

A person whose behaviour is so affected by drinking as to make others feel threatened may be considered to be in breach of disciplinary rules. Drunkenness is not a defence; it cannot be regarded as a mitigating circumstance in any matter concerning a breach of discipline. Anyone who causes damage to property not his or her own, or who harms another person, or who disturbs the peace, or who requires the involvement of the emergency services because of alcohol consumption, will be considered to be in breach of discipline.

Anyone who encourages another to consume alcohol to the point of drunkenness or beyond will be considered to be in breach of discipline. The offence will be considered aggravated if there is an element of intimidation or bullying, that is, the person being encouraged to consume alcohol has indicated his or her reluctance to do so.

Like many things in life alcohol can be safe and enjoyable when consumed in moderation. Take care of your own consumption and be responsible in relation to that of others.

Downing College alcohol policy.

With acknowledgements to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and the University of Leeds.

Drug misuse

The legal position

The possession and supply of controlled drugs (Drug Classes A, B and C) are criminal offences. Examples of drugs in the three classes include:

  • Class A: cocaine (including crack), heroin, amphetamines when injected, crystal meth, ecstasy, LSD, magic mushrooms
  • Class B: amphetamines, ketamine, cannabis, Ritalin, pholcodine (opioid cough suppressant), mephedrone
  • Class C: Valium (and other benzodiazepines), GHB, Tramadol.

It is a criminal offence:

  • to supply or offer to supply a controlled drug to another
  • to be in possession of a controlled drug, or to possess with intent to supply to another such a drug
  • for the occupier of any premises, or someone who is concerned with the management of any premises, knowingly to permit or suffer on those premises the smoking of cannabis or the production, attempted production, supply, attempted supply, or offering to supply, of any controlled drug.

The College

The College is required to inform the police in cases of possession of Class A drugs or cases of dealing involving any controlled drugs.

The consequences can be very severe and long lasting if a student is charged and convicted of a drugs offence, since they will have a criminal record. The College will also invoke its own disciplinary procedures in the case of possession of any controlled drugs, with potential consequences for future residence or even study in the College and University.

In short, there is great personal and legal risk to any student who is using or dealing in controlled drugs.

Health and harms

The College takes its duty of care to students very seriously. We will seek to provide medical and counselling support for any student involved with or concerned about drugs or drug taking, whether the drugs are illegal or legal.

The Downing College welfare team are always ready to give confidential help or advice to any student.

It is most important that students also understand that the persistent use and abuse of illegal or legal drugs are associated with significant harms. The legal classification of drugs is poorly related to the potential damage to health that they can cause.

Alcohol is an addictive drug and there is strong evidence that abuse of alcohol and alcohol dependence may stem from drinking in order to relieve stress, anxiety and depressive thoughts - each of which is not uncommon among a student population, and for all of which help is available.

There is a growing availability of other drugs about which little is known in terms of their harms. Cognitive Enhancers, such as Modafinil, and legal highs, such as Mephedrone, are readily available over the internet. There has been publicity about Modafenil use enhancing attention and alertness, but effects of repeated dosing are poorly understood. Mephedrone (‘m-cat’) and other so-called ‘plant foods’ are rarely pure and are linked to serious health harms, including amphetamine-like overdosing symptoms.

Never purchase drugs over the internet. It is impossible to know whether the drug is pure or whether it has been adulterated with some other substance. Neither is it possible to know what harms to health such drugs bring following repeated dosing.


None of us know whether we will become addicted to the drugs that we use, whether legal or illegal. A key sign, which may not be as easy to recognise as you think, is the gradual increase in and progressive loss of control over use. This loss of control is most easily recognised in smokers, who persist in smoking despite the certain risk of respiratory, lung and cardiovascular disease and the social isolation it now brings.

It is much more difficult to recognise and acknowledge loss of control over alcohol. If you feel that you are drinking more than you intended or using any drug in a way that is difficult to control, it is very important that you seek help within or outside the College at the earliest opportunity.

It is possible to help people stop problem drug use at an early stage, but that help is much less effective when drug use, including drinking, is out of control.