Internationals feel free to experiment
Drug paradise Groningen?
Paula had hardly settled in her new hometown of Groningen, when someone at a party explained where she’d be able to get drugs. Just like that, without her even asking.
She’d never done drugs at that point and wasn’t planning to, either. ‘I had come from Canada with this preconceived idea about the kind of person that does drugs; that they’re bad’, the psychology student explains.
That’s why she was going to stay far away from them. But that turned out to be quite hard. Her friends did ecstasy and even tried ketamine or 3MMC every once in a while, and had really good experiences. So by her second year, Paula thought, why not give it a try? That’s how she casually started experimenting with drugs on the techno party scene, together with her friends.
‘Doing drugs is so common here, compared to other places’, she says. ‘They’re so easily accessible. And students are not secretive about their drug use. I’ve had random people coming up to me in a club and starting to talk about what they’re on, or just asking me if I have any drugs with me.’
Less of a stigma
Arne van den Bos, a researcher within the Addiction Science and Forensic Care department of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, also sees that using drugs has become normal among students. ‘There’s a professionalisation on the producers’ side’, he says, and that leads to less of a stigma on the consumers’ part. ‘Drugs are more available to everybody. Even people who would never use drugs say that they can get them easily.’
Friends are even getting weekly newsletters with the available drugs
If you’re in the market for some pills, there’s no need to go to a remote, shady place to buy them, Paula confirms. Nowadays, you can just get them delivered to your door. ‘They always come within a few hours after asking.’
It is as simple as sending a WhatsApp message, adds Daniel, a Latvian master student. ‘Some of my friends are even getting weekly newsletters on WhatsApp with the available drugs, like a menu.’
And even though data from the 2023 Higher Education Monitor conducted by the Trimbos Research Institute shows this hasn’t caused the number of students doing drugs to skyrocket, it does have another consequence, says Van den Bos. A recent Hanze and UG study he led suggests that international students overestimate how common drug use really is among the Dutch.
While drug consumption is similar among both Dutch and international students, the latter group is more inclined to have a distorted perception of the Netherlands as a ‘drug paradise’. Participants in the study estimated that one in five adults in the Netherlands (21 percent) had used ecstasy in the past year, when the real numbers are at only 8 percent. ‘This attitude is likely partly a byproduct of the Netherlands’ relaxed policy towards cannabis use and its stereotypical image built through pop culture and the media.’
If you have an unknown substance that is not registered yet, it’s legal
Internationals feel like they have more freedom to experiment with drugs while living in this country, according to Daniel. He says it’s about celebrating your independence. He used to experiment himself, too, in the Paradigm rave scene. ‘People there usually take something, mostly ecstasy. For me too, the music felt nicer and I could connect more to the people around me.’
For Paula too, drugs are mostly a social activity. ‘It’s a collective thing, I feel like I get closer with my friends afterwards’, she explains. But while Daniel used to be very cautious in the drugs he chose, only taking conventional ones like ecstasy, Paula likes to experiment a bit more than that. Ecstasy might be her go-to party drug, but she’s also tried 3MMC. ‘It’s just a tuned-down version of ecstasy, which at the same time gives you more energy.’ She wouldn’t use it again, though. ‘For me, ecstasy just works better.’
‘What’s different now is this trend with designer drugs’, says Daniel. ‘I personally didn’t try them myself, but I’ve seen and heard a lot of people do.’
Designer drugs are synthetic, lab-designed substances. That includes ecstasy, although the term is mostly used for newer drugs like 3MMC, that have a few tweaked molecules and therefore slightly different effects than older, more well-known variations on the substance.
While the Trimbos Institute hasn’t seen an increase in designer drug use in the Netherlands as a whole, Van den Bos says it might be more popular among Groningen’s students. ‘But designer drugs are tricky. There is a kind of a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, because if you have an unknown substance that is not registered yet, it’s legal.’
That might make designer drugs seem less dangerous than they actually are, he explains. ‘But we don’t have a clue yet about the long-term effects of such new substances. So you’re basically a lab rat when you try designer drugs.’
Talk about it
Paula doesn’t think about it like that. She tried 3MMC just because it seemed like a fun thing to do. ‘Students are at the age of experimenting. I think they’re trying designer drugs out of curiosity, like I did. And as an international student, you’re already out exploring’, she says. ‘There’s no shame in this and I think it’s an important thing to talk about, to break stereotypes like the ones I had when I came here.’
As an international student, you’re already out exploring
Van den Bos, however, sees such openness as a double-edged sword. ‘On the one hand, it’s good that students are more open about this. But it can give their peers a distorted view, because it can make it seem like more people consume drugs than they really do.’
And when their drug use does become problematic, students are suddenly much less open. Van den Bos’ study shows that only a small number of internationals will seek consultation and care when their drug use gets out of hand.
Bill de Smeth, prevention worker with VNN, the addiction care centre for the northern provinces, has noticed that too. ‘We don’t see nearly as many students seeking help as we would like to, or as we would expect to. A lot of them just think they can figure it out on their own.’
And that’s a shame, he says. ‘We’re known for dealing with addiction care, which is a very strong, stigmatising word. But we do so much more than that.’ You can have your drugs tested for safety at VNN, for example, and you can talk to someone anonymously if you’re struggling with substance use.
VNN is hoping to become more approachable to students, both Dutch and international, says De Smeth. Because he and his colleagues are also concerned about this group. If students believe that using drugs is commonplace, it could make them more inclined to experiment easily. ‘By normalising it, it may seem like the majority of people use drugs. And that’s really not the case.’