Chasing the dragon in every close

TRISHA (not her real name) is eight and her "wee accident" was an extensive one, outdoing all that we could provide for this kind of emergency, and needing parental attention. Naturally, as is the order of things, her emergency contact was unavailable, and her parents do not have a phone at home. If they have, they refuse to give the number to the school.

The only alternative was for me to take her home and hope her parents were in. Why me? Our janitor was on his natural break, the child was in some discomfort, and I was loath to send out our clerkess auxiliary to Trisha's home territory. I had heard stories. As we picked our way over the detritus of the previous evening's excesses still littering her closemouth, Trisha informed me that her parents might well not be at home, as this was when they usually went to the shopping centre, but that the cockatiel was in.

The first shock was on the first landing, in the shape of a twentysomething standing immobile, head downcast, hands stuck deep in pockets, who did nothing to acknowledge our existence. On the next landing were a trio of similars, engaged in animated converse at an open door. Our appearance halted this and started a cheerful cacophony of local pleasantries more scatological than obscene that died off as Trisha and I reached her inevitable three-up home.

The cockatiel answered the doorbell but her parents did not confirming my worst fears. As we went downstairs and passed the now closed door Trisha gave me a look that said volumes. She broke this shared understanding by saying, rather apologetically: "They're there all the time." I must admit my spirits sank a little trudging back to school as I ranged over the socially, culturally, morally and environmentally biohazardous life that so many of our children now live.

My mood was not helped by the discovery the following day of a well used hash pipe in the playground. In one sense it is preferable to the syringes that are occasionally spotted by children and gingerly dealt with by our janitor, but its discovery merely brought home, if any such delivery were needed, the extent to which my school's area is awash with drugs.

This was reinforced by attendance shortly after at a local seminar given by the police at which the kaleidoscopic range of substances available for pursuing 1998's equivalent of Brave New World's soma was demonstrated. Drug abuse was described as the scourge of this, and the next, century. Neatly put.

The implications for the children in my area are enormous. From an early age, they know the local addicts by name, because they have grown up with them. They are used to seeing young people shuffling around resembling the slow-moving creatures you find in rock pools. Or they see them leaping around like dervishes, whose only thought is their next fix.

From an early age many, not all, are warned by their parents about drugs and drug abuse. Part of valuable curriculum space is given over to emphasising the dangers of drugs. Yet where does all this input end up when faced with the chilling amorality of the local drug dealers, gritty guys who are not to be messed with, with the near irresistible forces of peer pressure, with Buyer Remorse that can only be blotted out with another fix, with that little black blob of death on its hot tin foil, the ultimate late 20th century grail-search, chasing the dragon?

The war against drugs is one of attrition that will not show a clear victory, nor be won by any decriminalising process. This latter's strategies, debates and red-hot-air rhetoric don't interest me, nor do its personalities. What does concern me, and should concern its purveyors, is the theft of innocence and the rape of childhood that drugs and drug dealing are guilty of.

I range over P1 to P7 and look at Trisha and ask myself how many will survive the assault made by drugs and their dealers on their life, liberty and happiness.

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