Hooked on a cocktail of confusion

4th July 1997 at 01:00
The death of Andrew Woodcock, the 13-year-old Lanarkshire schoolboy thought to be Britain's youngest ecstasy victim, has put the spotlight on Scotland's grim record on drug abuse. More teenagers experiment with drugs than in any other part of the UK: 60 per cent of boys aged 15-16 admitted to having taken drugs against 43 per cent in England and 35 per cent in Wales. The Northern Ireland figure is 37 per cent.

Girls, although not so heavily into the drugs culture as boys, head the UK league with half involved.

Illegal drug use is soaring and according to some experts education programmes have failed. They point to a programme in Australia that resulted in a sharp increase in drug abuse and schemes in America that no longer have the support of parents, police, teachers or the medical profession because of their negative effect. Martin Plant of Edinburgh University, an authority on alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse, says: "There is overwhelming peer pressure to take drugs and social support for those who do. There is a seemingly insatiable demand being met by increasing supply."

Simon Jaquet, director of Fast Forward, the Scotland-wide health promotion organisation for young people, says: "Controlling supply doesn't work. We have to reduce demand. Young people have to be helped to live their lives in a way that is positive." Mr Jaquet has a low opinion of big campaigns such as the recent National Drugs Awareness Week. The anti-drugs message, he believes, is not getting across and his organisation is now targeting parents in a new move to spread the word.

Fast Forward recently completed a pilot scheme with parents who work at the insurance company Standard Life and the programme, which involved meetings with experts and young people who had taken drugs, is set to spread. Mr Jaquet says: "A key reaction was that they were agitated, worried and concerned. Our message was that the drugs problem is probably not as bad as it seems to them but that there is certainly no room for complacency."

Andrew Woodcock is thought to have been experimenting with drugs for the first time and is said to have drunk large quantities of water, a practice aimed at lessening side effects, before swallowing three tablets. Professor Plant says: "For youngsters drug taking is not sinister. It is sociable, a small part of their lives and the majority do not get into trouble. We need to come to terms with that."

The proposed use of random drug testing in schools find little support from those working with the young. But Patrick Tobin, principal of Daniel Stewart's and Melville College and the Mary Erskine School for Girls in Edinburgh, says drug tests there "can be embraced by someone who has admitted previous involvement with drugs as a means of demonstrating that they are clear of problems and worthy of our trust". Professor Plant comments: "That totalitarian attitude makes my blood run cold. I can't imagine any sane teenager admitting to his or her headmaster that they have taken drugs. Schools should be helped and not expected to take on the responsibility of parents and the rest of society."

Although he is strongly in favour of health promotion, Professor Plant warns that health promotion programmes have proved ineffective in curbing drug abuse and even counter-productive. As for adopting a stern line, he says: "Parents, police, teachers all love it but it simply does not work. Do we want to create a generation of cannabis criminals? That would cover half the teenagers in Scotland. There is no point in doing anything that would make the position worse."

Simon Jaquet says: "We all take drugs." He would include alcohol and tobacco in that statement. The line often put forward by the young that there is little danger involved in illegal drugs compared with the consequences of taking tobacco and alcohol has some force. In 1994, the last year for which official figures are available, mortality rates in Scotland were 247 from drug abuse, 720 from alcohol (road deaths not included) and 10,421 from tobacco-related diseases.

A sharp rise in drug abuse is, however, obvious: as recently as 1988 drug deaths in Scotland stood at just 45. Tobacco deaths are now very slightly down on the figure for that year. From his experience with Fast Forward, Mr Jaquet says: "What schools need is a strategy with three elements. Intervention (how to cope), education and staff training. If these are in place you don't need drugs testing. If you invest in trust, especially in teenagers, they will respond."

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