Why aren’t we educating children about drugs and drug-usage?

I’ve spent three of the last four years living in the Netherlands, a country famous amongst British tourists for one of three things: clogs, the Red Light District, and weed.

Why is Britain refusing to budge on drug policy?

It’s impossible not to walk around central Amsterdam without seeing large groups of young British tourists clearly spaced out of their minds, trying to navigate the maze-like canals of the city. For some tourists, the Netherlands represents an opportunity to indulge in an activity which would otherwise see them face a maximum of five years in prison, or at least a hefty fine.

That always blew my mind a bit — that a 45-minute flight meant the difference between paying a huge fine (if you’re lucky), or paying less than five euros for a pre-rolled joint.

How can something be effectively legal (although technically not) in one country, yet be illegal and demonised in another not so far away? I say technically not legal, because officially cannabis is actually still illegal in the Netherlands. It has however been decriminalised for personal use, with a general policy of ‘tolerance’ around its commercial sale and recreational consumption. Britain however, seems to be lagging behind when it comes to drug policies; preferring to follow the US in its failed ‘war against drugs’.

Now there are many articles out there, full of graphs and data, showing the beneficial effects of more liberal drug policies in different countries. The data points to falling addiction rates, lower incidences of drug overdoses, and a significant drop in diseases connected with needle-sharing — not to mention the amount of police resources spared. The arguments for increased drug legalisation, or at least liberalisation of drug policies are cogent. I won’t regurgitate those arguments, but if you’re interested, more information can be found here. What I do wish to understand though, is why despite such convincing evidence, our drug policies have remained pretty much the same for decades.

A recent revelation that Home Secretary Priti Patel seems to support Tory London Mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey’s policy to drug test office workers in London for cocaine use, is another example of the UK’s bizarre approach to treating the problem — by policing workers.

The government’s stance in favour of the above policy rests on the argument that middle-class drug users are fuelling the county’s drug networks, which sometimes use children. This type of image is part of the reason why drug policy has always been such a political hot potato. Drugs are bad because they’re connected to a criminal underworld, and criminal underworlds are bad — period. This simplistic equation however, largely fuels the current drug policy in the UK.

The wrong equation

The real equation is, or at least should be: drugs are illegal, therefore they create a criminal underworld, and that’s what’s bad.

It’s a tale as old as time really. During a period of alcohol prohibition in the USA the rum-runners and criminal organisations sprouted, profiting from the ban. Likewise, the first drug cartels were launched for a similar reason, causing atrocities and corrupting cities. What no one seems to want to admit, is that the modern-day cartels would never have a reason for existing if it wasn’t for the ill-thought-out prohibition laws that created them in the first place. 

As long as the British public connect drugs with crime, rather than appreciating that more often than not, it’s the criminalisation (by definition) that causes crime, it seems politicians will remain reluctant to speak openly about drug law liberalisation.

Good laws should align with our sense of right and wrong. When it comes to drugs, the jury is definitely still out on whether they’re ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in and of themselves in any moral sense. Without the criminal element however, which by and large exists purely as a result of the criminalisation, why would we want to make drugs illegal?

This is perhaps what lies at the heart of the problem — our attitude towards drugs themselves. Now I say ‘our’ but really mean a minority — albeit a large one — of people in the UK. A recent survey of public opinion suggests that 53 per cent of us want cannabis to be legal or at least decriminalised. This make sense when we see many other western countries much further along the route of legalisation, such as several US states and Canada which have legalised recreational cannabis. If they’re doing it, then why aren’t we?

Fearing the worst

One explanation for the lack of change in public opinion on the decriminalisation of harder drugs is fear that drug use would spiral.

The truth is, if heroin or cocaine were legalised, at least in the long term you wouldn’t necessarily see any substantial uptick in usage. There is evidence for this. After mass drug decriminalisation of illicit drugs in Portugal in 2001, data has shown that drug use in the country remains below the European average, and youth drug use (16-25-year-olds) has declined. If you’re an addict, you’ll get your hands on drugs no matter what. If you weren’t casually using before legalisation, it’s not very likely you’ll suddenly become a casual user after legalisation. Even if casual use did rise, at least it would be far safer and would no longer fund a criminal underground. It would also be subject to taxation. That tax can be ring-fenced, as is the case in other countries, to help treat and rehabilitate those with addiction.

Further data continues to dispute claims that legalisation of soft drugs, such as cannabis, increases hard-drug usage through a ‘gateway’ effect. The verdict is largely inconclusive, but there are repeated warnings in these reports that just because a cannabis user might use other drugs, this doesn’t prove that one led to the another. In fact, there is growing evidence that people use harder drugs before using cannabis. A study in Japan found that 83 per cent of recreational drug users hadn’t used cannabis. There is also a greater correlation between alcohol and nicotine use and the use of harder drugs, than there is between cannabis and harder drugs. Finding this out was particularly jarring, especially since I was taught the gateway-drug theory of cannabis as a hard fact in school. This type of misinformation is incredibly detrimental when it comes to our ability to deal with drugs in a safe and smart way.

Most of you reading this probably went through the British state education system, with lessons or visitors coming into school to warn you of the dangers of drugs. Though it’s good that we learn about drugs in a controlled environment, it’s not so great that this is often undertaken by community police officers and the like who may lack a balanced opinion.

Drug addiction is acutely concerning. But the truth is that a sizeable portion of people will take drugs at some point in their lives. What’s more, illegal drug use doesn’t just exist on the fringes of society. For the most part, usage isn’t habitual either. According to 2019 Home Office data, 1 in 5 adults aged 16-25, and 1 in 11 adults aged 16-59 in the UK have used illicit drugs within a 12-month period.

Re-educating children about drugs

So why don’t schools inform and educate children about recreational drug usage?

I think part of the reason is the potential backlash. Schools naturally fear being accused of promoting illegal behaviour of any kind, or condoning a recreation which involves funding criminal organisations. Again, the  criminal element of drugs is stopping us from having a balanced and mature conversations about the realities of drug use.

Concerns over safety are another (legitimate) reason for the lack of open discussion in classrooms. In 2018, 4,359 people died from drug poisoning in England and Wales. Make no mistake, drugs can be dangerous and lethal, which explains the conservative ‘better safe than sorry’ approach. This is a hard discussion to navigate openly.

I remember a police officer coming into my old school, telling us about how synthetic drugs are particularly dangerous because you don’t know what they’re cut with, or what the chemical quantities are. These accounts are given as reasons to not risk taking drugs. But isn’t that the wrong way to approach the problem? We should be asking how we can prevent drugs from being cut with harmful substances, or how to ensure a person takes safe quantities of a certain drug.

It seems that the real issue here is finding the safest way to ensure people don’t accidentally overdose on drugs, or ingest undisclosed and harmful substances when taking them. The current response is a blanket ban, which is arguably ineffective and counterproductive. You can’t control the quality and quantity of the drugs people use when they’re underground and unregulated.

Let’s be clear here. The dangers of drug use will always remain, regardless of the type of regulation remeasures in place. Legalisation and regulation won’t put an end to drug-related deaths. But the hope is that this will at least reduce them, as has been shown in Portugal.

Parents will likely object to their kids being taught about drugs in a more open way. Unfortunately, we’ve all heard the tragic stories of single-use drug deaths. Parents will do anything to protect their children. But this cautious and censorious approach on drug education and policy does more harm than good. One-time drug deaths are very rare, akin to freak allergic reactions in many ways. This of course doesn’t lessen the personal tragedy suffered by families, but basing our views and policies on the exception rather than the rule doesn’t seem right. It’s a little like preaching abstinence because there’s the possibility that you might catch a life-threatening STI.

The Dutch example

Many drug-related deaths and single-use cases result from accidental overdoses or ‘dodgy’ pills. Unregulated drugs are simply more likely to be unsafe. So, without wanting to sound like a broken record, I’d like to bring up the Dutch approach again and what we might learn from it. In the Netherlands, you can go to local specialised clinics to get drugs tested (usually free of charge) for impurities and chemical quantities. Being informed helps users make a safer choice.

In fact, because of pressure from parents whose children have died from taking overly-strong drugs at music festivals, since 2018 several UK music festivals have had drug-testing on site, with more than 8,000 people having their drugs tested at festivals in the summer of 2018. The facilities were run with the help of drug and healthcare professionals who consulted festival goers on safe quantity usage. A senior chemist at one of the test sites said: ‘about half [of those having their drugs checked] say that they will take smaller quantities after speaking to our healthcare professionals about strength and dosage’. There was also an increase in the amount of drugs voluntarily handed over for disposal after testing.

The problem however is that this drug-testing isn’t widely available at festivals or more generally to the British public. Many festivals are actively against allowing these centres on their sites, out of fear of being seen to promote drug use. To me, this is a classic case of moral squeamishness getting in the way of practical, positive change. Festivals wishing to keep their hands clean of drug use are indirectly creating a more dangerous environment for users. Perhaps the same can be said of our government.

Rather than keeping the problem of drugs and drug use in the shadows, we must be proactive against their potential harm instead of predictably reactive. Tackling the underlying social and personal causes of addiction,  making drug use safer and not demonising it which only leads to the demonisation of drug users, will enable people to get the help they so desperately need.

The road to acceptance and legalisation won’t be smooth. The UK is not Portugal and must take its unique circumstances into account. No decision or law will be without its problems and moral dilemmas. One of these being, if we legalised most drugs, who can sell them — private companies or state-owned outlets? Private companies seeking profits from addicts isn’t a comfortable thought, and neither is the idea of the state maintaining these unhealthy habits. But the alternative, or more accurately, the current situation still involves people making enormous profits off of addiction. Our reality is one of no regulation, no taxation, no safety, and all whilst funding a whole criminal underground.

To me, the choice is pretty clear. We are squeamish, or perhaps morally snobbish to the detriment of the very values and principles we think we’re upholding by not liberalising drug laws. When it comes to drugs, the real moral high ground isn’t to look down your nose at this or be squeamish about the realities of drug use. It’s about making drug use as safe as possible, whilst curbing the criminal elements which currently exist. If our policies aren’t doing either of those two things, then honestly, what is the point?


Editorial Note: A section of this article regarding Priti Patel’s support in favour of drug-testing workers has been changed due to an error. The policy is not a progressive step but the latest example in a series of stubborn moves to police drug-takers.

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