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Anti-drugs drive 'still misguided'

The Government has yet to take on board the fact that young people take drugs for pleasure. Michael Prestage reports. The Government's White Paper on drugs, unveiled last week, is a welcome move but still misguided in its focus, according to workers at the sharp end.

Campaigns that are designed to shock are recognised as being ineffective. However, in Manchester drugs workers say that in concentrating instead on peer-group pressure as a major factor in drug taking the Government has still got it wrong.

At Lifeline, an innovative Manchester-based drugs project frequently at odds with officialdom, the idea that drugs are forced on to young people is rejected. There is certainly peer influence. But a major factor in drug taking is always skirted by the politicians: young people take drugs because of their pleasant effects.

Mike Linnell, information and publicity manager at Lifeline, says: "It is no good telling young people they will be hooked for life if they take one drag or swallow one E.

"They know what the drugs do and why they like them. You have to give them information to help them avoid the worst pitfalls. Harm reduction has still not been wholeheartedly endorsed by the Government. The White Paper is still something of a cop-out."

Mr Linnell says a campaign to stop people drinking alcohol or one with posters announcing 10,000 alcohol-related deaths a year would be equally ineffective. He believes political expediency forces ministers to keep campaigning for total drug abstinence.

The main points of the White Paper include Pounds 5.9 million for school drug education programmes in 1995-96. Research has shown almost half of boys in their GCSE year are likely to have used cannabis or Ecstasy.

The Government will also fund a 24-hour helpline; health and safety measures will be provided at rave parties; there will be a needle exchange scheme for users; and drug action teams and reference groups will be established throughout England.

Lifeline has broadly two groups of clients. There are what might be termed full-time drug users, who use heroin or rock cocaine (crack) and often inject. But there is a growing number of recreational drug users who want information. Last year Lifeline saw 2,000 such young people and its print-run for publications aimed at recreational users exceeded one million.

Lifeline says that: "These people do not want to be told not to use E when they go out clubbing. What they want to know is how to avoid heatstroke, which can be fatal. The drug, the heat of the club and energetic dancing raises body temperature and fluids must be replaced." Lifeline's advice sheet warns people to drink one pint of water or soft drink every hour.

Mr Linnell says: "We don't believe it is possible to stop people using drugs. As with sex education it shouldn't be about stopping people having sex. It is about educating people and hoping there will be some benefits. To be effective you have to tell young people the truth about a whole range of drugs."

At the Home Office-funded Drug Prevention Initiative covering most of Greater Manchester there is a move to bring together various agencies to tackle the drugs problem. The initiative hopes to provide alternatives to drug taking for young people. It reflects the recommendations in the White Paper.

Pam Cohen, the team leader, says: "We have concentrated on improving information and awareness, particularly for young people. Drugs education should not be done in a vacuum in the classroom. There is also a need to inform parents about drugs."

One project the initiative has been involved with is the parents-run Gorton Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse, which is trying to protect the community from drugs . It organises a range of activities for young people as well as providing information on drug misuse.

Ms Cohen said: "In terms of a role model it is incredible. While it is not proven that if children are bored and hanging around on street corners they are more likely to get into drug-taking situations, it is a fair assumption. "

Greater Manchester Police have welcomed moves away from the shock tactics. They now rarely send officers into schools with dire warnings about the consequences of drug-taking. Instead, activities are directed at empowering adults at the sharp end, such as teachers, to tackle the problem.

However, the police have found that in schools some attitudes are hard to break down. The force runs an emergency helpline for schools which have a drug-related incident in school. Last month 34 schools called, only a fraction of those where incidents would have taken place, police believe.

Inspector Karen Pinder said: "Schools are still reluctant to contact us because of the perceived stigma for the school. We understand they are in something of a dilemma."

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