Father of talented Oxford student who died of overdose attacks university’s drugs policy

Daniel Mervis - a JFS alumni and champion weightlifter – died aged 23 having developed a cocaine addiction at St John’s College


The father of a gifted Oxford University student who died of an overdose has hit out at the drugs policy of his son’s former college.

Daniel Mervis - a JFS alumni and word record powerlifter – died aged 23 having developed a cocaine addiction while at St John’s College.

He began his first term at the university in October 2014 after his entrance exam results ranked among the top five percent of St John’s College admissions.

The physics student took time out in his first year due to his battle with addiction and rejoined a year later, but left again to focus on his treatment.

In September 2019, he started at University College London, having remained drugs-free for eight months. But he relapsed and died of a mixed drug overdose in October 2019.

In an unprecedented move, a coroner directly criticised the drugs policy at the college. 

In her report published last week, the coroner stated that “It was clear that Daniel was using drugs whilst at St John’s College.”

She added a “concern…  that there is an apparent conflict between St John’s stated policy to deal with utmost severity with those students who misuse or supply drugs, and the apparent support those students who suffer with drug addiction are offered.

“This conflict may discourage such students to seek help for their addiction out of fear of the consequences, either legal or disciplinary.”

His father, Hilton Mervis, a lawyer from north London, said that this was not about trying to blame the university for his son's death, but about trying to "remedy an obviously defective drugs policy in order to save others".

He added that the college’s drugs policy was “inadequate”.

He added that he hoped to foster a “more supportive and open environment for those suffering with addiction and drug misuse.

“This means the breaking of taboos, education, and care rather than discipline to those struggling with drug abuse. I am not trying to stop people using drugs at university, of course that will not happen. But because this is the reality, we need more support and education for those addicted and struggling with drug misuse.

He added: “Daniel struggled so bravely with fighting his addiction, taking months out of his life to attend rehabs around the world, along with so many other young people whose stories may never be told.

“He is such a loving and caring person who valued every sentient being as a compassionate vegan. Daniel would have wanted his passing to be the catalyst to save one life or enable one person to avoid the misery of addiction.”

In her report, coroner Professor Fiona Wilcox said Daniel Mervis was found in the flat of a drug dealer and that he could not be resuscitated.

She said he had suffered from anxiety, depression and ADHD and misused drugs in his teenage years and eventually developed an addiction.

She added that Oxford University does not have an “overarching policy agreed by all colleges”.

On the “apparent conflict” she found in St John’s College’s policy of dealing with drug misuse, she wrote: “There is no suggestion that the college should condone illegality, but since drug addiction is an illness, then support by the college may assist students with these issues to access appropriate care, perhaps early on in their addiction, and thus help prevent deaths.”

The college has 56 days to outline ways to address the issue or explain why it will take no action to prevent future deaths.

In a statement to several media outlets, the college said it was “greatly shocked and saddened at the news of Mr Mervis' death.

“The college has responded to all enquiries from the coroner's office but is surprised at the publication of this report, as we had been informed by the coroner's office that Oxford and St John's were outside of the sequence of events that led to and caused the death, and so outside of the remit of the Coroner's inquiry.

“The college is awaiting further information at this time and will not comment further.

“Comprehensive support provisions are available to all students who may benefit from help with drugs or other medical and welfare problems and are set out in the student handbook, which is available on the college website.

“As part of the student induction procedure, the senior dean and welfare dean see all new undergraduates in Fresher's week and specifically refer them to the support provisions and details in the handbook.

“Such comprehensive provision was prevalent at the time Daniel Mervis was an undergraduate.”

Mr Mervis’ father said: “I hoped Oxford St John's would welcome the coroner’s decision and move forward positively to improve their drugs policy. Their statement seems to ignore the fact they spent considerable effort in unsuccessfully seeking to persuade the coroner that their reference to the one paragraph on drugs in the students’ handbook amounted to an adequate policy. Perhaps when they have had time to reflect, they will appreciate that the one paragraph in the handbook is not adequate and as the coroner pointed out is ambiguous and confusing.” 

He added: “The true scale of addiction and the adverse impact it has on the lives of students will never be clear without an open debate and ensuring universities and students do not conceal the scale of the problem because of the stigma associated with drug use.”

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