Kicking the habit

6th February 1998 at 00:00
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."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today