Why do international students use so many drugs?

International students use even more drugs than the Dutch. The image they have of the Netherlands plays a role in this, says researcher Arne van den Bos.

‘Seeing someone who is truly addicted, it’s hard to understand why they just don’t stop.’ Hanze lecturer Arne van den Bos is still fascinated by this. He experienced it up close, and addiction was an important theme during his Psychology studies. ‘I found it interesting to learn about how people can gradually work themselves into misery, even though they don’t want to.’ He has been conducting research for the Lectorate of Addiction Studies and Forensic Care for years now.

‘They use more drugs than Dutch students, but not that much more’

This year, Van den Bos and his fellow researchers published a study on substance use among international students. The researchers reported on the online survey they conducted among members of the Erasmus Student Network, a network that many international students of Hanze and the University of Groningen are affiliated with.

International students seem to think that Dutch people use a lot of drugs, and they themselves do too. ‘They use more drugs than Dutch students, but not that much more,’ Van den Bos tempers. ‘They mainly use a lot of cannabis and nitrous oxide, but since the use of nitrous oxide is now banned, it will probably decrease.’

‘ Among young people under 25, half of the help requests are related to cannabis’

The study reveals that students mainly use substances they think are not so harmful. They assume that cannabis poses little health risk. But Van den Bos sees something quite different. ‘Student psychologists tell me that when students encounter problems due to their drug use, it’s usually cannabis. It can significantly interfere with their studies. Students use ecstasy occasionally, at a festival, for example. But cannabis is more for regular use, some students use it daily.’ According to Van den Bos, this frequent use can lead to isolation, panic attacks, motivation problems, and addiction traits. ‘We also clearly see this in addiction care. Among young people under 25, half of the help requests are related to cannabis.’

‘The high use of cannabis among internationals, I think, has to do with the image they have of the Netherlands,’ says Van den Bos. Previous research led him to conclude that a large part of the students associate the Netherlands with cannabis use. ‘People want to study abroad, and part of them think: ah, the Netherlands! Then I can smoke weed freely.’

‘ In Germany, you keep quiet about drugs, in the Netherlands, people talk openly about it’

Student International Business Sander (24) sees a lot of this happening around him. ‘I also notice that over time, students start to use more and more drugs. In Germany, you keep quiet about drugs, in the Netherlands, people talk openly about it.’ The threshold is low, and according to Sander, this is especially true in the hardcore and techno scene.

But the image of the Dutch as heavy drug users does not correspond to reality. Internationals estimate that about half of the adult population has recently used cannabis and one in five has used ecstasy. According to data from the Trimbos Institute, the actual figures are significantly lower. Only 7.8 percent of the Dutch used cannabis in the last twelve months, and only 3.9 percent used ecstasy last year. ‘Drug use in the Netherlands is not higher than in other countries. While that is what people tend to think,’ says Van den Bos.

There’s a good explanation for this. ‘The image of the Netherlands as a drug paradise has to do with the cannabis policy. The perception is that you can buy it here in the shop as easily as buying a sandwich. This leads to an overestimation of how normal cannabis use is. And the Netherlands is the number one producer of ecstasy, which quickly leads to the assumption that it’s also the number one consumer.’
IBS student Sander thinks that drug use in other countries is also becoming more normalized. ‘It’s increasing, I believe. Some young people are only fifteen years old. I think music has a big influence. Popular songs often talk about drug use.’

‘ If you think it’s really very normal here, then you’re more likely to use it yourself’

The temptation is great, thinks Sander. ‘International students want to have a good time here and meet other people. When they come together to party, yes, then drugs are easy to obtain.’

The distorted image of the Netherlands can enhance the incentive to use drugs. ‘It has a pulling effect,’ says Van den Bos. ‘If you think it’s really very normal here, then you’re more likely to use it yourself.’
Van den Bos also points out the vulnerability of international students. ‘They come here wanting to make new friends. This makes them more susceptible to using drugs, they want to fit in, just participate. They are less likely to have a trusted safety net to fall back on when they run into trouble. They also often don’t know their way to the doctor.’

The study shows that students are generally reluctant to talk about problematic drug use, especially with professionals at their institution. Even though there is a lot of help available, at Hanze, for instance, you can turn to Hanze Student Support.

According to Van den Bos, international students need to be better informed about the actual drug use in the Netherlands and the risks and assistance available. ‘There are already initiatives with Addiction Care North Netherlands. We have ideas about education during the introduction weeks. We are also in talks with the mayor and the night council to see what we can do with this. Think of a digital platform with information, training deans, and information during introduction weeks from organizations like the ESN, preferably through fellow students.’