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Major backs hard facts about drugs

Mark Whitehead on the Government's new straight-talking approach. Cannabis does not necessarily lead to other drugs. No one yet knows the long-term effects of ecstacy. Heroin produces a feeling of warmth and drowsy contentment. Not outlandish claims by some youthful campaigning group but statements in a Parents' Guide to Drugs, launched by prime minister John Major this week at a London conference.

A year after the Tackling Drugs Together campaign heralded a more enlightened approach to the question of drug abuse, a cultural revolution has taken place. Admitting that the Heroin Screws You Up and Just Say No campaigns of the 1980s failed, government ministers now accept that young people need factual, unbiased information to make up their own minds.

The most revolutionary aspect of the new approach is the admission that young people try drugs because they believe they will find them enjoyable. Admit that, the new thinking goes, and you may stand a chance of getting across the other message: that all drugs are potentially dangerous and can ruin lives. Simply brand all drugs as evil and deadly and you will be ignored, because young people's experience tells them otherwise.

The Health Education Authority, which produced the new parents' booklet, was one of several agencies represented at the conference in London. David Arnold, an HEA spokesman, said: "Young people know half the story. If you ignore the fact that they enjoy the pleasurable aspects of drugs you will alienate them.

"We've got to be able to enter into a knowledgeable debate so that we can point out the very clear risks they are taking."

The booklet describes the effects of the drugs young people are likely to come into contact with nowadays, and spells out the immediate risks, possible side-effects and long-term dangers.

A leaflet for young people also produced by the HEA is even more up-front. Cannabis, it says, is the most popular illegal drug in the UK. "Even your parents might have had a go when they were young. Ask them."

Danny Ryder, aged 17, told guests at the HEA launch of his experience as a young drug user coming into contact with the Youth Awareness Project in Newham, east London: "We could ask anything we liked. YAP doesn't judge people, it helps them make their own informed decisions."

Mr Major, announcing more money for local drug action teams and the appointment of a senior international drugs co-ordinator, appeared to endorse the new approach. Young people needed more knowledge of drugs to be able to resist them, he said, and parents need to be able to explain the dangers.

Yet the message was mixed. "Drug taking is extremely bad in every respect, " said the prime minister. "It can kill and maim and wreck lives and young people need to know what it will do to the quality of their lives."

Declaring drugs "one of the great menaces of our age," Mr Major appealed to those present to "resist the siren voices of those who say they have tried some drug and it never did me any harm". The fight against drugs could be won, he said, and the future of our children was at stake.

Home Secretary Michael Howard, who was also present at the conference, introduced a moral dimension: "It's the choice between right and wrong, " he said, "and it's the purpose of education to make the right choice."

Just how successfully the war on drugs is being waged is hard to gauge. Customs and Excise report increasing seizures of all drugs while surveys show many young people regularly using drugs such as cannabis and ecstacy. If such reports are anything to go by, says Adrian King of the National Liaison Group for Co-ordinators of Health and Drugs Education, the war has already been lost.

The Parents' Guide to Drugs is available free from the Health Education Authority. Freephone 0800 987999

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