Opinion divided on axed drugs agency

7th April 2006 at 01:00
The closure last Friday of Scotland Against Drugs (SAD), the national body which provided training to thousands of teachers and resources to every school in Scotland, has prompted mixed reviews.

Its demise 10 years after being set up was due to the failure of the Scottish Executive to do its homework properly, the agency's outgoing director said. "In my 21 years working in the drugs field, there has not been any real learning by policy-makers," Alistair Ramsay said.

But David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum, questioned SAD's effectiveness. "We have no evidence that drugs education affects vulnerable young people," Mr Liddell said. "Drugs education cannot inoculate against drugs use."

The agency, which had core funding of pound;1.5 million a year from the Scottish Executive, has been absorbed into the Scottish Centre for Healthy Working Lives, based in Hamilton.

Mr Ramsay is critical of the move. "I can't see how Scotland will benefit from the new policy which is driven by the rehabilitation-treatment agenda and where the prevention agenda has been dropped. The Executive hasn't done its homework on our achievements."

But Mr Liddell suggested that, while the pound;10 million SAD challenge fund intended for distribution to communities was worth while, there was now a need to invest more in treatment and care.

"These are areas where we know we can make an impact," he said. "We need to focus on vulnerable young people through home care and family support. We have to be realistic. Drugs education per se will not make any significant impact on new recruits to the problem of the 50,000 drug users we have in Scotland."

Mr Ramsay, however, said this would not fill the education and information gap left by SAD. "Who is to train our teachers, deliver pre-five drug education or provide the unique resources we have developed for young people over the years?" he asked.

When Mr Ramsay took over as director in January 1999, he believes he successfully steered SAD away from the initial "Just Say No!" campaign, which was perceived by many to be counter-productive. He opted for what he calls a subtler policy of "responsibility through education" and away from "a policy of hectoring and lecturing young people to one of choice".

In the education arena, he is particularly proud of having delivered drugs education training to more than 5,500 teachers and nursery staff, funded through both the public and private sectors, as well as providing resources such as the 160,000 Stepping Stones gameboards for P2 pupils and the 330,000 Drugs: Know Your Stuff booklets delivered annually to secondaries.

SAD had hoped to spearhead drugs education training in the special needs sector before its demise was announced last November by Hugh Henry, Deputy Justice Minister. "I fear we will lose the education side altogether now,"

Mr Ramsay said. "How are schools and local authorities going to be supported at the national level when the only programme was the one which we designed, developed, conducted and evaluated?"

He believes the perceived downward trend in drug-taking among 13-15s since 1998 is not unrelated to the work of SAD.

Mr Ramsay called for "a vast investment in young people to give them healthy diversionary activities and more reasons for not taking drugs, especially at a time when houses are replacing playing fields and replacement new schools often lose their old swimming pools".

Mr Liddell agreed that drugs education should be part of an awareness programme in schools delivered through personal and social education. But he believes there is now a need to focus more on supporting vulnerable young people and keeping them in the school system.

"We need to stem the flow of new recruits to drugs through early intervention, beginning with the vulnerable mother with a baby," he said.

"In the past, we have seen drugs education as a panacea without looking at the social issues behind problem use."

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