LEISURE ACTIVITIES should be free for young people in an effort to turn them away from drugs and cheap alcohol to relieve their boredom, one of the leading academics on the subject has suggested.
A policy on drugs education was not enough, according to Neil McKeganey, director of Glasgow University's Centre for Drug Misuse Research. He said it was "absolutely crazy" that drugs were cheaper than many forms of recreation.
Professor McKeganey, speaking at this month's Helping to Build Happier and Healthier Children conference in Glasgow, said surveys showed that children pointed to boredom as one of the main reasons they started using drugs.
"We need to ensure that alcohol and illegal drugs are not the most exciting things available to young people," he counselled.
Making other activities cheaper could steer young people away from boredom, and subsequently drugs, but said this did not go far enough. "Why are we charging them at all? We need to work to remove barriers."
Professor McKeganey said it was not clear to what extent teenage boredom was a modern phenomenon, or merely an inevitable part of growing up. But, combined with greater availability of illegal drugs and much cheaper alcohol than a few years ago, an "unfortunate coincidence of factors" had occurred.
He explained that, whereas alcopops were causing concern a few years ago, now harder alcohol was more prevalent among young people, while a survey of 15-year-olds found that 5 per cent said it was "very easy" to get heroin.
Research also showed that, despite campaigns depicting shadowy figures dealing drugs, young people were more likely to accept illegal substances from school friends than strangers.
Professor McKeganey warned delegates that drug education was not working in schools. He said there was a danger of complacency, with the mistaken belief that merely putting drug education in place - whatever its actual effectiveness - meant the problem had been addressed.
He also expressed frustration at a general reluctance in Scotland to act on research: "What we tend to do is wait for the problem to become manifest, and then to respond to it in a knee-jerk fashion."
Professor McKeganey made the case for more innovative approaches, such as inviting recovered drug addicts and their families to speak with pupils, which is being considered by the Scottish Executive. He said pupils found such talks "particularly striking", although it was not yet known how effective they would be in deterring them from using drugs.
Drug education delivered by teachers, he believes, is un-likely to be as effective, as there is "a climate of unreality about discussions".
Professor McKeganey also argued that those children likely to be vulnerable to drugs should be identified as early as possible. "We need to identify and target those at greatest risk of using illegal drugs and getting into difficulty at school, without labelling them in a way that will have an adverse impact on their development."
When asked about the importance of family background on whether a child uses drugs and alcohol, Professor McKeganey explained that the level of supervision and interest was more important than the structure of home life; so that, for example, whether both parents live together is less a factor than how those parents respond to their child.