Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda


Submitted by Neil Hunt, University of Kent


  1.  As well as writing from my professional perspective I write as someone who is a parent of two children aged 7 and 11, a school governor and who is regularly involved in voluntary youth work. I am a Registered Mental Nurse now working in a university and have been undertaking research concerning drug use and misuse for more than 10 years. I am research adviser to the Kent Drug Action Team's Under 18s reference group. I am a director of the UK Harm Reduction Alliance and a signatory to the "Angel Declaration", each of which are the subject of separate submissions to this Committee. This submission has been prepared specifically for the Committee.


2.  Broadly not, as evidenced by:

  Young people:

    —  the escalation in drug use by young people over the past 10 years which shows no convincing sign of reversal;

    —  a widespread distortion of "education" that is ineffective and wasteful of resources because it propagandises rather than informing and fundamentally fails to recognise the sophistication of young people who cannot be "educated" not to use drugs;

    —  a dangerous distortion of the perceived risks of ecstasy and heroin by young people as a direct result of ill-conceived campaigns that are driven by a media-fed moral panic:

    —  the criminalisation of approximately half of the population of young people within Britain for activities they largely perceive as benign and incurring risks that are commensurate with legal drugs used widely by adults:

    —  the existence of an extensive dance drugs culture across Britain about which little is known and within which health advice and information provision and the research-base is inadequate.

  3.  Safer communities:

    —  the failure to address the substantial individual and community safety harms associated with alcohol alongside illicit drugs within an overall policy;

    —  the persistence of severe child poverty and areas of deprivation that underlie the highest levels of drug problems and which experience the most severe social consequences of endemic, dependent drug use;

    —  the skewing of treatment provision towards approaches of uncertain efficacy arising from the premature rollout of DTTOs whilst the quality, range and access to voluntary community treatment has remained poor, creating an incentive to offend in order to gain access to drug treatment.

  4.  Treatment:

    —  the inability to engage a substantial fraction of the opiate-dependent population in accessible treatment that they perceive as helpful and effective;

    —  the persisting high prevalence of hepatitis B and hepatitis C among people who inject;

    —  the high rates of overdose among people using opiates in combination with alcohol and benzodiazepines;

  5.  Stifling availability:

    —  the increasing availability and reducing or static prices of illicit drugs;

    —  a legal framework that is incompatible with British human rights legislation;

    —  the imprisonment of drug users for drug possession which has a negligible preventive effect, rarely rehabilitates and frequently intensifies their health and social problems;

    —  the effective abdication of control of drug distribution to criminal gangs by pursuing policies based on prohibition, with a resulting unregulated drug market that, among many things, is transforming urban life by driving the spread of gun-related deaths in Britain;

    —  internationally through foreign policy that invests in an un-winnable, and often immoral and corrupt drug war, whilst treatment that works remains under-invested in.

  6.  Despite my many and varied concerns, within the constraints of the available word limit I will focus on two issues concerning young people that I believe may receive less attention within other submissions.


  7.  The following views draw on a qualitative study of 235 young people's views of drug education (Hunt and Hart 2000) along with other related experience (see introduction).

  8.  Unlike other forms of education, for the most part "drug education" is poorly done and not based on informing and enabling people to make up their own minds. Instead, the conclusion that young people should reach is predetermined and, with few exceptions, the content of drug education is skewed to try to achieve this. That is not to say that reducing drug-related harm and developing informed citizens regarding this area of public policy is not an important objective. However, grounding this in a "primary prevention" framework drives people towards an unattainable outcome, is inconsistent with the general principles of education and disenchants pupils and teachers alike. "Project Charlie" (Hurry and Lloyd 1997) an isolated study that has been championed by UKADCU as evidence of the potential of drug education had a minor effect with a small sample over a short period and was methodologically weak.

  9.  From their early teens young people are generally cynical about their experiences of drug education. The discrepancy in the treatment of alcohol and cannabis is extensively commented upon and especially undermines efforts to provide health information and advice regarding legal and illegal drugs. Many young people have no interest in drugs and find drug education irrelevant because it tries to discourage them from doing something they do not plan to do. Others, including many who are cautious or conservative in their attitude to drug use, resent the perceived "prohibition" agenda which they find patronising. Valuable opportunities to link drug education with other aspects of the curriculum such as history, geography, economics or regarding citizenship are rarely taken but are a prominent feature of drug education elsewhere (Munro 1997).

  10.  Young people are generally critical of the poorly co-ordinated way drug education is delivered and the lack of knowledge of the people delivering it. These problems are compounded because it is largely premised on "peer pressure resistance" despite evidence that young people generally have a lot of agency in these processes and are frequently making considered, active leisure-lifestyle choices when they use drugs (Coggans and McKellar 1994; Hart and Hunt 1997). Additionally, teachers generally feel poorly equipped to deliver "drug education" effectively and are often reluctant to engage in it for this reason. The multitude of other demands on teaching time mean that it is frequently a resented, tick box exercise and an unproductive drain on teaching resources.

  11.  Sociologically, drug "education" largely appears to serve the function of alleviating adult anxiety about drug use by young people and is based on the false premise that we can do something in a few hours within the classroom that will stop young people using drugs. Desirable as this is, there is no good evidence that this is a realistic expectation. Its desirability is of course part of the reason why, for the most part, we collectively choose not to notice that it doesn't work.

  12.  The ill-concenived shock tactics that are sometimes employed are especially poor practice. Most notably, the "Leah Betts" campaign has meant that many young people now believe that the risks of ecstacy exceed those of heroin (Balding 2000) despite the gravely discrepant risks between the two substances. In a context where heroin outbreaks continue to unfold across Britain (Parker, Bury and Egginton 1998) such misperceptions are a source of serious concern because of their effects on young people's decision-making.

  13.  For all this, there is valuable information that can and should be provided to young people and linked with other aspects of the curriculum and that could effectively highlight the uncertainties and potential harms that can occur when drugs are used. Similarly, for the many young people who may use drugs there are practical harm reduction messages that can be provided. Regrettably, despite the phenomenal spending on drug education there has not yet been any government-funded evaluation of drug education approaches based on harm reduction principles. A fundamental reconsideration of the purpose and organisation of school drug education is needed.

"Dance drug" users

  14.  "Clubbing" has established itself as a popular and important part of the leisure economy. "Clubbers" are a substantial segment of mainstream society who use a wide range of illegal substances—predominantly the "dance drugs" ecstasy, amphetamine and LSD along with cannabis—with high rates of alcohol and tobacco consumption (Measham, Aldridge and Parker 1998). Despite this, there is negligible investment in research regarding patterns of drug use among clubbers or the short and long-term effects of their drug use, which remain poorly understood.

  15.  There is correspondingly little investment in targeted social marketing aimed at reducing drug consumption and behaviours such as drug-mixing that exacerbate these risks or that could alert people to the health risks of new substances or behaviours that periodically emerge. A precautionary approach would suggest that this should be widely undertaken. Increased investment in each of these areas is needed.

  16.  One key strategy that is used extensively within continental Europe to collect information about changing trends in drug availability and as a vehicle for delivering harm reduction messages is "pill testing" whereby ecstasy pills that are used within clubs can be tested to establish their contents. Pill testing is recommended by the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA 2001) but is not possible within the UK because of the way that the Misuse of Drugs Act is enforced. The law should be amended to enable this measure to be used to help reduce drug-related harm amongst clubbers.

September 2001


  Balding J (2000) Young People and Illegal Drugs into 2000. Exeter: Schools Health Education Unit.

  Coggans N and McKellar S (1994) Drug use amongst peers: peer pressure or peer performance. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy 1(1): 15-26.

  EMCDDA (2001) On-site pill-testing interventions in the European Union.

  Hart L and Hunt N (1997) Choosers not losers? Drug offers, peer influences and drug decisions among 11-16 year olds in West Kent. Maidstone: Invicta Community Care NHS Trust.

  Hunt N and Hart L (2000) Drug Education in West Kent: The Views of Young People. West Kent Health Authority.

  Hurry J and Lloyd C (1997) A Follow-up Evaluation of Project Charlie: A Life Skills Drug Education Programme for Primary Schools. London, Home Office Drugs Prevention.

  Munro (June 1997) School-based Drug Education: Realistic Aims or Certain Failure. Melbourne, Australian Drug Foundation.

  Measham F, Aldridge J and Parker H (2001) Dancing on drugs: risk health and hedonism in the British club scene. London: Free Association Books.

  Parker H, Bury C and Egginton R (1998) New Heroin Outbreaks Amongst Young People in England and Wales. Police Research Group, Home Office.

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Prepared 20 December 2001