Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter from Ian Wardle, Chief Executive, Lifeline Project Ltd

  Thank you for your recent letter regarding the "ambiguous messages" contained in one of our leaflets "How to survive your parents discovering you're a drug user". I don't think we have ever been "ambiguous"; "How to survive your parents discovering you're a drug user" gives it away a bit in the title, but I will attempt to explain the philosophy behind Lifeline publications.

  Education and prevention are often confused, an assumption is made that drug education prevents people from taking drugs. There is no evidence that will stand up to any serious scrutiny that supports this from anywhere in the world. What tends to happen is that attitudes are measured rather than behaviour, as measuring short-term attitude changes is much easier than measuring behaviour. When behaviour is measured it shows that short-term attitude changes do no have any significant impact on the numbers of people using drugs and just highlight the failure of primary prevention approaches.

  This is not to say that drug education is a waste of time, any more so than sex education is a waste of time. Sex education covers factual information, prevention strategies (STD's, unwanted pregnancies, age of consent etc) as well as putting information into the context of thoughts, feelings and meanings. It does not attempt to stop people having sex. The problem is not with drugs education; it is with drugs prevention. Drugs prevention is based on a disingenuous fallacy. Sometimes this is because of a well-meaning moral belief or political expediency on the part of those who champion it. Contemplating the alternative (that it doesn't work) is not an option for some people; admitting it doesn't work, is not an option for many politicians. Primary preventions have responded to their failure by both denying facts, attacking organisations like Lifeline that state openly that the "King has no clothes" and by wasting more public money on tweaking a philosophically flawed model.

  In the mid 1980s when faced with the threat of AIDS amongst injecting drug users, Lifeline looked at the available evidence and spoke to drug users. Our conclusion was that we did not know how to stop people taking drugs; (it may be that it is not possible, we certainly do not know how to do it) to take public money for preventing drug use was in our view immoral. We therefore decided to look at what was possible. We believed that preventing HIV among injecting drug users was both a more serious threat and preventable. The success of this national approach can be demonstrated in the extraordinary low numbers of drug injectors infected with HIV in Britain.

  Over the last 15 years we have attempted to produce a range of publications aimed at a wide variety of drug users, without the luxury of any public funding. We initially started producing leaflets (a comic called Smack in the Eye) in 1987; its aim was HIV prevention among drug injectors. The philosophy behind our publications is very simple; to explain it I'll use the sex education analogy again.

  There has been controversy in the last decade over the "promotion" of homosexuality in general school based sex education. If however you had an aim of preventing STD's among under 18 year old gay men, the argument becomes redundant. A leaflet specifically targeted at a group of young gay men, that attempted to promote heterosexuality and prevent them having sex would not only be silly, it would be counterproductive if the aim is to promote safer sex as it would alienate the audience.

  Not only is the comic book approach we use popular; it allows us to tell a story. These stories reflect the lifestyle of the different groups of drug users we are aiming at. We are attempting to see the world from their point of view and to take their side. When we have an understanding; we attempt to give information and advice that fits into their world, in a style they find appealing.

  The leaflet you mention is aimed at young drug users. From a young drug users point of view a parent discovering what they're up to is undesirable and potentially far more damaging than their drug use. "Spelling out the undesirability" of taking drugs in a leaflet aimed at drug users is as silly as spelling out the undesirability of gay sex in a leaflet aimed at gay men. This does not mean we do not spell out some of the dangers of drug use, far from it. We are trying to reduce the harm from drugs by telling the truth; the lies and exaggerations of primary prevention campaigns just make our job harder.

  If you want a more detailed academic explanation of our approach, we have one available.

March 2002

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