Kicking the habit

6th February 1998 at 00:00
A team of recovering addicts, Calton Athletic is trying to take drug culture out of youth culture. Raymond Ross reports

Following the funeral of 13-year-old Allan Harper, Scotland's youngest heroin victim, a resident in the Glasgow housing scheme where he lived saw little point in arresting local drug dealers. "What's the point? Drugs are everywhere. There's no way back," she said.

Drugs are everywhere, and not just on the streets. The phenomenal success of Trainspotting, and the recent BBC series Looking after Jo-Jo are evidence that drug culture is part of youth culture, is part of Scottish culture.

One group in Glasgow, attempting to take the drug culture out of youth culture, is Calton Athletic. Calton started in 1985 as a football team for recovering addicts in Glasgow's east end and works on the frontline, offering drug recovery programmes that provide a mixture of mental and physical involvement designed to change lifestyles and create a "feeling good and looking good effect".

It runs sporting clubs from netball and aerobics to running, swimming and football, and has set up the first Drugs Prevention Soccer Sevens League in the world for under-11s, in response to the alarming number of kids being caught up in drugs. There is an under-18 club which offers "away from it all" weekends, a women's group and - in partnership with the Daily Record - recovering addicts are offered jobs selling papers to earn a regular wage.

In a city that is reckoned to have some 8,000 to 12,000 injecting adults, Calton can only get 100-150 people off drugs each year. In an attempt to find a way forward, it set up a drug awareness team of recovering addicts who visit primary and secondary schools throughout Scotland, to give workshops and address parents and community groups. The educational work is backed purely by voluntary donations, its main sponsor is the Robertson Trust.

The workshops, says team leader Willie Burns - a recovering heroin addict for the past 13 years - are "structured personal testimonies showing how you descend into criminality, robbery, prostitution, homelessness and so on and how your own drug taking affects your family and friends with all the selfishness and destruction that follows".

He adds: "We simply say to the kids, if you want drugs, this is what you have to be prepared to do and put up with. We do tell them about the buzz, the high, the good effects of what we call the `honeymoon period'. But then we show them the reality as it sets in. Then, we open it up to the pupils."

Calton adopts a zero-tolerance approach, which means that all their members - presently around the 90 mark - have to be drug-free. The eight drug awareness team members are also alcohol-free through choice. Burns argues that the chain leading to addiction with youngsters usually begins with alcohol before leading onto cannabis and harder illegal drugs.

"Alcohol is a mind-altering drug that is addictive. I personally think alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis. But it's the lifestyle around cannabis, because it's illegal, that means the chances are, whoever supplies the cannabis will also look on the young person as an easy target and will probably also supply harder drugs."

This view is fundamental to Calton's rigorous attitude to recovery with emphasis on physical fitness and keeping occupied. "Drugs and disease go hand in hand. One of the drug awareness team is infected HIV or hepatitis C. But only certain ones of us have had the test. There's some choose not to. There's a strong chance that some others of us are HIV or hepatitis C. When you tell the pupils that, you can hear a pin drop."

The workshops have been a source of controversy, described by one youth consultant as having a "scare the kids to death" approach, which seems to run contrary to a Government drugs education policy that says frightening young people may increase interest and experimentation.

Alistair Ramsay, Glasgow's adviser in health education and an adviser to the Home Secretary on drugs, says: "The use of recovering addicts and alcoholics in schools is banned in the US. If it's not good enough for American kids, why is it good enough for ours? If we had no other resources, I could understand schools going to outside agencies, but to my mind the use of ex-addicts has not been proved to be educationally sound."

Calton denies that it frightens pupils and that its approach leads to greater interest in drug taking. Willie Burns says: "We're the only group who tell them the whole story and who tell them from experience. So the kids listen up. To say that our personal testaments lead to the pupils taking drugs is like saying that drink-drive adverts which show the damage done to children encourage people to drink and drive. Anyway, these criticisms tend to come from people who've never seen one of our workshops."

The team's co-ordinator and former teacher Elspeth Hirst, says that since they started visiting schools in 1993-94, the vast majority have immediately wanted them back. Their views are endorsed by Professor Neil McKegany at the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University, which carried out a three-month research project funded by Scotland Against Drugs. He says: "It's important to have as wide a range of people in drugs education as possible. Ex-addicts, able to speak through experience to young people, can be a valuable lesson."

His report found that: "Young people who had participated in Calton sessions were very positive about the experience of getting a first-hand account of the experience of drug addiction, commenting in particular on the value of team members being able to speak from their own experience, referring also to the positive reactions of both parents and teachers."

The campaign director for Scotland Against Drugs, David Macauley, has seen Calton's presentation many times with kids, parents and businesses. He says: "Their anti-drugs message is very powerful. I've spoken more than most to young people on this matter, and they want to hear it from those who've been through the experience.

"In a broad-based approach, Calton's presentation has tremendous value and relevance. They can blast through the communication barriers that 14 to 18 year olds sometimes have. They communicate."


The drugs awareness team believes that Primary 6 and 7 pupils are the premium age to get to. "They're aware of drugs at that age but are still open-minded and not yet put under the kind of peer pressure that 'wee first years' get in the secondary. A lot of kids start their experimenting in late primary and early secondary," says Willie Burns.

"Every parents talk we've done, they've wanted us into the school immediately. Because we're all recovering addicts, it's natural sometimes that the parents will want to meet us first. That's fine by us," he says. This approach means that the parents can talk to the children after we've visited the school. They've something to share, says Elspeth Hirst.

During a two-hour workshop for P7s at Longstone Primary in Edinburgh, there were times when you could have heard the proverbial pin drop, though there were no signs of pupils either being scared or excited by tales of addiction, destitution and self-destruction.

Led by Willie Burns, three recovering addicts - Steven (see right), Helen and Janice - spoke of their own experiences, laying great emphasis on peer group pressure and personal tolerance levels, including in relation to alcohol, which began the cycle of addiction in each of their cases in their early teens. They made it clear that addiction did not necessarily involve injecting and that a virus like HIV could as easily be caught from having unprotected sex while on E as from sharing dirty needles, part of their point being that when you lose control, you're less likely to be careful in many different ways and that losing control is the beginning of a downward spiral.

The individual testimonies involved accounts of robbery, destitution, imprisonment, violence against family and friends, descending into chaos where the only way out was death. The pupils listened attentively, aware that the subject was real and personal to those speaking. They asked a series of questions on the effects of different drugs, who could have helped, how the individual did eventually get off drugs, what actual damage they'd done to others.

Afterwards, the children's teacher, John Pattie, said the workshop "fitted in perfectly with our drug awareness topic. It was good for the pupils to hear from those who had been through it. They listened well and took it all in. It'll make them think more before being tempted to take drugs. We'll follow up with a class discussion and a personal written response. And I'll pick up on peer pressure and tolerance levels."


Steven is in his early 30s and comes from a family of eight. He was addicted at 15. He began to deal from home. He started assaulting his mother, but couldn't remember it the next day. He eventually left home, but not before introducing his sister to drugs.

By cutting amphetamines with cleaning agents he caused his sister severe health problems affecting her lungs and kidneys, and stunting her growth. She had only been on drugs a month. Steven also organised a break-in at his mother's work, an old people's home, to get money for drugs. He became a dealer simply to keep up his habit.He tried to kill himself twice by crashing a car.

His mother is proud he has come off drugs, but he says he has to live with what he did to his sister for the rest of his life.

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