Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform
committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use
Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform Response
In recent years Australia has, with the exception of tobacco, seen not only an increase in drug use but an increase in young people using drugs of all types, both licit and illicit and they are using at younger and younger ages.
Australia and most of the western world has tried to eliminate certain drugs with a range of measures that have not only not succeeded but have increased the dangers to life and health. Successive attempts have been tried but always by using approaches based on law and order, rules and punishment, many of which have not been evaluated to determine their effectiveness. These approaches appear to be based on blind faith and on an assumption that they should work. But whatever the reason there has been limited, if any, success.
Similarly there have been many education programs but there have been few that have been evaluated. The US National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended that drug education in schools be stopped until the programs could be evaluated for their effectiveness. This was never done. For many programs there has been an assumption that any education is better than none. However some programs that have been evaluated have been shown to increase drug use and thus cause more harm.
Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform
Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform does not support or promote the abuse of drugs either licit or illicit. It does however, support rational, evidence based drug policies, that will effectively reduce the harm from drugs. Most importantly this includes effective education and effective counseling and treatment services.
Innovative approaches required
Governments and the community generally see education as a single solution in reducing the uptake of drugs by young people. This is unrealistic because school drug education in the past has been successful only on the margins and slow to deliver results. There are a number of reasons for this and among them is the matter of resources allocated, repetition of past approaches when new or innovative approaches are called for or lack of evaluation to show which programs work and which do not.
This draft document is linked to a flawed national drug education strategy that has as its central objective "no illicit drugs in schools". This goal is misleading, but (in the political context) is thought to be popular with parents in the community at large without consideration for the consequences for individuals. It relies on the promotion of punishment or expulsion of students as its central tenet. Such policies have not had a major impact on drug use in the general community.
It is now time to try innovative approaches and this Drug Education Policy Framework for the ACT needs to use an evidence based approach which builds on proven successes if any, or if no successes exist, on sound research.
Thus with this framework there is an opportunity to develop a program of education which when coupled with a trusting and caring school environment to reduce the harmful use of drugs by young people, their family and the community, will reduce the related tragedy and crime. Whilst schools should not be expected to solve all the problems of drug abuse it is the one institution that is well placed to have a major influence on young people.
Principles for Drug Education in Schools
Some important principles omitted from the those outlined in the framework document when compared with principles developed by the University of Canberra as a collaborative initiative of States, Territories and the Commonwealth of Australia and coordinated by the School Development in Health Education Project.
The following additional principles are recommended for inclusion in the document:
Messages learned should be modelled consistently by staff and supported by parents.
The draft Drug Education Policy recognises a large number of the fundamental issues that relate to drug use in our society and in schools.
The recognition that we live in a drug using society is a fundamental issue and that it is recognised in the document is positive. The recognition of the whole range of drugs from prescribed medicines to alcohol and tobacco to illicit drugs is also a positive reference in the document. The logical consequence then for schools drug education is to teach our children how to live as safely as possible in a society where many different drugs are readily available. Even though the document recognises these things and talks about harm minimisation it falls short in a number of ways.
Likely to be shelved
The strategy is asking that all schools develop their own drug policy using this framework as guidance. It is unlikely that each individual school would have the resources or expertise to develop a policy which could make a difference to drug abuse within our society. It is more likely (and understandable) that this document will be shelved by most schools. There is no commitment in this strategy to resourcing it.
Resource expensive there is a better approach
The approach proposed in the policy framework document of having each school develop its own policy is wasteful of resources and is likely to result in an ineffective and inconsistent patchwork collection of policies.
If governments and the community are genuine in their expectation that drug education will play a major role in prevention of drug abuse they must be prepared to resource it appropriately. More research and best practice models for education need to be developed by the education and drug experts.
Thus a better method would be for the department to undertake central research to establish or identify benchmark programs that have been proven to be effective in reducing drug related harm and to develop a central policy using expertise in the drug field. Once undertaken then a consultation process with schools should commence.
It is most important that if a drug education policy is to be developed it is carefully researched so that it actually reduces drug use and not increases it. Witness the effect of the DARE program in the USA where an evaluation of that program showed that children exposed to it actually took up drug use at a greater rate than those who were not exposed to the program. The DARE program is now being removed from many states teaching programs. Also some evaluation of Life Education has not been positive.
Undue concentration on illicit drugs
In the document there is undue concentration on illicit drugs to the detriment to a rounded education aimed at lifestyle matters and to the ignorance of other licit drugs. Nor does the policy acknowledge that alcohol and tobacco precede any illicit drug use.
No indication of teacher training
There is no indication in the document that there will be adequate training for teachers who will implement the strategy.
No indication of resources
The document provides a framework for schools to develop their own policy but there is no indication of resources that would be provided to assist with the process.
Does not comprehensively cover all ACT schools
The strategy appears to refer only to public schools and the policy framework does not encompass private schools. This is a serious flaw in a policy that should be for the betterment of the whole community. One consequence which public schools will be well aware of is the ease with which private schools can expel a student for involvement with illicit drugs. Indeed Prime Minister John Howard encourages this approach form all schools. But public schools know that a student expelled by private schools is likely to end up in the public system which must then deal with the issue that the private school has avoided. See also the comments by Paul McDonald below.
Outcome measures not specified
Evaluation should be an integral component of the policy but the document does not incorporate such measures. While it does say that such measures will be incorporated, there is nothing in the draft that gives comfort to the reader that such measures to be used in evaluation will be effective measures or will be anything more than motherhood statements. Further it refers to implementation of the policy framework as a measure when this is a process and is ineffective as a measure of the success or otherwise of the policy.
Managing drug incidents
The range of options for managing drug incidents seems reasonable on the surface. However the document does not adequately deal with students with problematic drug use. There is insufficient guidance in this area. It seems to be mainly interested in the welfare of the whole with little consideration for the individual. In this respect Principle 7 needs to be clarified to refer to each and every student and not students in general.
Such actions must be firmly anchored to the principle of harm minimisation. Paul McDonald, Chief Executive Officer for the Youth Substance Abuse Service, in his essay "What if saying No just doesnt work?" has this cautionary note: "When it comes to educating our youth on the dangers of drugs, a more potent education strategy may be to keep young people within the school orbit. Evidence shows that young people who drop out of school become more vulnerable to ongoing drug problems than those still at school. Staying at school gives a young person links to a community; increases the resilience to the paths of drug addiction; gives them a sense of belonging; and provides them with an environment that continually challenges them to contemplate their futures."
Paul McDonalds words were echoed at the NSW Drug Summit in its recommendations: "the 15 percent of 15 19 year olds who are neither in education nor any form of regular employment are at high risk of drug abuse".
Within the context of harm minimisation the role played by friends and family and a knowledge of first aid could be added. For example isolation of a friend or family member is more likely to lead to drug abuse. Additionally the knowledge of first aid could save the life of a fellow student who has overdosed on, for example, alcohol.
The document contains inconsistent statements concerning legal and illegal drugs. For example:
The introduction says that "The school environment is one in which the use and misuse of illegal drugs is prohibited" (Page 5) "Students are actively discouraged from the use of illegal drugs". (Page 5) These statements do not recognise that:
Safest option is not to take drugs at all (Sect 6) but in section 9.1 reference is made approval by the principal in the college context for students to possessing alcohol. That is, in some circumstances the school may actually promote alcohol use.
Help and guidance for policy maker
While the document talks about best practice and research there is little in the document that would help a policy maker develop policy on that basis. In a number of areas guidance is called for but is not forthcoming in the document.
Document loosely constructed
The document is titled a policy framework but is loosely constructed such that any school could choose to ignore some or all of it or develop a policy that has little relevance to the statements made in the framework.
Policy development must be lead by experts
The framework document would not lead to consistency nor would it facilitate the development of best policy across the ACT because it allows non-experts or ill-informed persons to develop or significantly influence the policy in a school. The matter of consultation is important but the overarching principle must be that programmes and strategies and policies are based on evidence and research.
Little attention given to evaluation
Very little attention is given to evaluation and more should be included about it. The framework identifies expected outcomes in the principles and aims and should therefore specify what and how each schools policy and application of that policy will be evaluated. It is also important to know what works in education have there been any education programs that have been proven to reduce or eliminate harmful drug use?
Abuse of drugs of all legal status is emerging as a growing problem and there is an increasing expectation for school education programs to provide the solution to the problem. It is an unrealistic expectation for school education to be the panacea. Such education is rooted in the same model that dictates the drug policy - law and order, rules and punishment when a different approach is called for.
Education programs have to date only been effective on the margins and have rarely been evaluated for their effectiveness. Effectiveness measured in terms of reducing uptake of drugs or deferring the uptake.
If governments and the community are genuine in their expectation that drug education will play a major role in prevention of drug abuse they must be prepared to try innovative approaches, to resource it appropriately, to undertake research, to develop or adopt best practice models and to undertake effective and objective evaluation of all programs.