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Body politics

Adrian King treads the fine line between preaching against drugs and giving young people the chance to make up their own minds. The word "drug" strikes terror in many of us and this reaction could dislodge the objective and balanced approach sought by the new circular from the Department for Education.

Entitled "Drug prevention and schools" the circular reminds us that drugs are commonly accessible to our pupils and that there is widespread if not universal recognition that education is a key factor in the struggle to keep young people safe from the harm they can inflict. It is essential for young people to understand the hazards drugs represent, which of them are illegal and the expectations of the school in relation to drug taking, so that the possible consequences of involvement are clear. They also need to understand some of the complexities of the subject and to be properly equipped to deal with the various situations in which drugs may be available or on offer.

The circular says pupils "should be encouraged to reject drugs because they believe that to be the right thing to do rather than because they have been told to 'say No'". It is perhaps in this respect that our job is most challenging, for it may prove easier to alienate young people than to convince them. We want them to know what we say is true, reliable and not merely intended to restrict them, or we may fail.

The human body is a wondrous thing and to contemplate introducing drugs into it is serious step but it might be a rash and arrogant move to try to impose my will on others who take a different stance. If I were to try to convince a Sunday lunch-time drinker of the sanctity of his liver, I might get a curt response, or at least reminded that it's my round. If I were to attempt to criticise a smoker for her dark teeth, her darker lungs and attempt to strengthen her resolve to give up by reminding her that everyone's body merits clean air, she may blow smoke in my face or choose to spend her evening elsewhere. If I tell young people I know that trying cannabis or LSD could lead to a lifelong drug habit, and that their unique bodies will have more of a chance of remaining healthy into old age if carefully looked after, they may nod enthusiastically and then make sure that I am not around when they next enjoy some spliff or a trip.

If I want to bring about change in someone, I believe I have little chance unless the communication is two way. Just telling them what to do may encourage them to do the opposite, whereas if I am ready to listen, there is more of a chance. Young people resent being talked down to and are no more likely to be swayed by it than we were when we were their age. Honesty, on the other hand, adults levelling with them, can bring a different reaction. If young people feel they are being respected, they, like you or me, may be more likely to listen and to learn as much as they can.

So when pupils have been clearly told what the law says, and what the school rules are, how can we ensure they will want to listen to anything more? Honesty, reliable information and a readiness to listen to their perspective may all help. Objectivity, too. The DFE circular says: "All pupils need accurate information" about drugs and calls for "a realistic account of their implications for the individual, the family and wider society." This may require us to question some common, basic preconceptions. For example, it would be easy for us to wax lyrical about the possible dangers of drugs while forgetting socially acceptable drug use. Prescribed and over-the-counter medicines are often pretty powerful drugs and in the UK we frequently swallow them with little thought and varying levels of need. Alcohol and tobacco are monumental killers and represent at least as high a potential risk to any of us who use them as any illegal drugs do. However, the dangers are different, and exactly what dangers each drug represents is one of the things young people need to know.

On the other hand, objectivity is needed, so we must be careful how we present the dangers. Of course illegal drugs can be hazardous but then so can pot-holing, boxing, off-shore canoeing and riding a bicycle on main roads, but most of us don't spend much energy trying to eliminate those. We are usually reasonably happy for our children to undertake dangerous activities as long as they have training, exercise proper safeguards, and have skilled and careful supervision until they achieve an acceptable level of proficiency. This is as true for crossing the road as it is for driving a car despite the annual total of 39,340 accidents involving children on the roads or the 310 children killed, (coincidentally a similar number to those of all ages who die in the UK from all "hard" drugs in a year).

Maybe antipathy arises from a fear that illegal drugs are more dangerous than the legal ones. So we may be prepared to sanction limited use of a legal drug, alcohol (at weddings, Christmas, perhaps Sunday lunch) as young people grow towards adulthood. This is an irony because alcohol is not only the most popular drug in our society, but also the most poisonous of all the commonly abused drugs, killing more than 25,000 people a year in the UK.

We also know that tobacco is a killer but it is not so widely known that the tobacco industry spends Pounds 72 million a year on advertising in the UK which serves effectively to reinforce the demand for cigarettes if not to increase it. We are content to sell tobacco to children as soon as they reach the age of 16. However, Pounds 100 million a year is spent on tobacco products by under 16s. Of those who become regular smokers of 20 or more cigarettes a day, it is now estimated that half will die from smoking-related diseases, contributing to about 111,000 smoking-related deaths a year in the UK. Against these statistics, any attempt to pin a "dangerous" tag solely on illegal drugs could seem a little hollow.

Illegal drugs are also, of course, illegal. After all, the law classifies offences involving controlled drugs as pretty serious and most of the adults who denounce drugs would not knowingly break the law. They would never drive at or over 70mph on a motorway nor would they ever have dreamt of colluding with shops opening on Sundays before the law changed. They certainly would not approve of a London taxi setting out in the morning without a bale of hay in the back for the horse. Yet that law still exists. The bottom line is that breaking the law may not itself be the main sin. The real crime is breaking a law that isuniversally seen as just and relevant.

The trouble is, there are many young people who do not see laws permitting alcohol but restricting use of drugs such as cannabis as either relevant or just. They may see the justice of carrying a bale of hay when a cabby's horse needed feeding, but they may find it harder to detect the logic of criminalising some of today's illegal drugs in the first place. Queen Victoria, they could point out, used tincture of cannabis for period pains. Amphetamines were issued to Second World War night-fighter pilots to help them concentrate. Cocaine was once an ingredient in Coca-Cola and was a dental anaesthetic well into the second half of this century. In fact, the more one looks at the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, the tougher the task to explain fully the current distinctions between legal and illegal drugs, and class A, class B and class C status on the grounds of logic alone.

Perhaps we also have less chance of being taken seriously by pupils if the most evident sentiment colouring our approach is disapproval. Whatever the cause, the effect has been much the same throughout the ages: open disapproval has courted disobedience. The young have always been adept at defying us, hiding their activities from us, and mostly getting away with it.

If they smell danger, the activity may seem even more attractive, even when tragic accidents remind them that the dangers are real. However, when those who have tried illegal drugs tell researchers about it, they often minimise the risks, say "everyone does it" - a recent study showed 47 per cent of 15 to 16-year -olds had tried an illegal drug - and assert that drugs should be legalised to reduce the price, increase purity, and take young people out of the shadow of the criminal justice system.

I believe we need to be able to question the unthinking adoption of these assertions without simply seeking to quarrel with them. All those responsible for the development of young people have a duty to become well informed about drugs, for only then can the subject be faced calmly, and with authority. We need to convey respect for the pupils we teach, even when we disagree with them. On the other hand, we must be careful not to do or say anything which pupils might misinterpret as condoning drug-taking. Young people need to understand that it is OK to say no, even when it is to legal drugs.

Young people deserve the chance to hear and explore the views and the cultural norms of others their own age as well as those of adults if they are to have a realistic chance of developing a considered stance to drugs and to feel confident and skilled enough to sustain that stance. The renewed challenge of drugs education today, embodied by the new circular, is to make sure they have that opportunity.

Adrian King is contact person for the National Liaison Group of Co-ordinators of Health and Drugs Education. Need some help or training? This year's GEST funding includes a budget for drugs prevention which your education authority will tell you how to access.

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