What is drugs education really about? If drugs education were really about harm-reduction then we would objectively compare what science tells us about the effects of various substances since scientific research is undeniably the best method of determining the relationship between various causes and their effects. In this article it is argued that most drugs education in Britain fails to accurately communicate the truth about drugs by becoming unknowingly embroiled in a highly questionable, ambiguous, and complex mission of moralistic social engineering. Drugs education is dishonest, it misleads people, it is biased, and fails to represent the complex histories and realities that surround the issue of the individual’s relationship to mind-altering substances.
For the most part: drugs education, as it stands, works under a very different modus operandi than simply educating young people about the scientifically demonstrable facts about the effects of drugs. Drugs education as it is currently practised is the result of a complex set of interacting dynamics: the socially constructed taboo surrounding drug use and altered states of consciousness, the fact that many of the teachers will be largely ignorant to the realities of drug use, many of the teachers will have a knowledge-base largely gained through their own (frankly, limited) drugs education secondary education, many of teachers will themselves have used recreational drugs in the past and are not at liberty to be honest about it (due to the aforementioned taboo), an increasingly questioned overarching paternalistic political agenda encapsulated in the somewhat revealing term “The War of Drugs”, the endless double-standards surrounding what substances and activities (legal or otherwise) are deemed “too harmful” to be permitted, the list could go on. The elephant in the room undermines much of these drives though, and that elephant is the scientific research about the harms (and benefits) of various drugs.
In illustrate the extent of these conflicting factors, I would like to ask you to have a look at the graph below.
Now the source of this graph is none other than the government’s own scientific experts: Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, November 2010. It illustrates clearly a number of truths that are somewhat unpalatable to many drugs educators in Britain:
- Alcohol is, seemingly, more harmful than all other drugs: yet it is a drug that is socially accepted and most of the teachers themselves have used.
- Cannabis is safer than alcohol or tobacco
- Both the status of a given substance’s legality or illegality and current drug classification system(Class A, B, etc.) have virtually no bearing on the scientifically demonstrable harms of the substances in question.
Now each of these points is worthy of great exploration and thought: but let’s focus on the last one. If a student with much intelligence about them were to see and understand this graph, the graph showing scientific research, they would instantly see the arbitrary nature of current drug laws. That simple question “why?”, “for what reason?”: it would be enough to thoroughly undermine a “just say no” approach to this issue.
And there are other truths that drugs educators tend to be shy of broaching:
- Many of the controlled substances have been shown to have medicinal properties, most notably cannabis and some of the “psychedelic” drugs.
- When compared to high risk non-drug activity there is a clear double standard. The great Professor Nutt was, of course, fired from the aforementioned committee, for (amongst other things) stating that ecstasy is safer than horse-riding! Deaths from peanut butter allergies compared with deaths from cannabis use also serve to demonstrate this double-standard very clearly.
- There is a clear double standard about attitudes to legal pharmaceuticals, psychoactive or otherwise, in terms of their harms (the P.R. term is “side-effects”) and the likelihood of those harms occurring. Compare, for example, the long list of side-effects for Fluoxetine (the anti-depressant better known as Prozac) to the effects of the responsible use of “magic mushrooms”: decide for yourself which seems more harmful!
- That there is a difference between drug use and drug abuse.
- That most drug users do not have their lives destroyed or seriously derailed in any meaningful way by it.
- People take drugs to have fun.
- Many of the teachers may have, at some point in their past, used a controlled substance. Their experiences may not have all been bad.
- The fact that pretty much every one in our society is a “poly-substance user” when considering clearly how people use alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sugar, and psychoactive pharmaceuticals.
- The history of the use of the drugs that are now illegal (“He who controls the past, controls…”?)
o The use of “entheogens” and “psychedelics” in the students’ ancestors shamanic traditions
o The potential spiritual significance of altered states of consciousness
o The use of mind-altering substances by eminent peoples and thinkers of the past and their role in human creative enterprise.
- The political and historical origins of our drug laws.
- The complex political nature of drugs prohibition, related concepts such as “Freedom of thought”, “The Harm Principle”, or “cognitive liberty” are never really discussed in the context of drugs education.
- The political nature drugs education as an agent of socialising and social-engineering.
To further challenge our current “just say no” drugs education practices is the vast sea of conflicting evidence students will increasingly be exposed to: drug information from “unapproved” drugs education sites, vastly more access to positive accounts of drug experiences, peer communications, wider access to “legal highs”, potentially enlightened parents, a culture of increasingly normalised drug use, and frequent positive depictions of drugs and “drug cultures” in films which, compared to two decades ago, seems to have massively infiltrated modern cinema at a somewhat suspicious rate.
Let’s face it, “The War on Drugs” is becoming increasingly controversial for a number of reasons; not least of all the recent American states that have ended cannabis prohibition thus rightfully claiming an enormous tax bounty in return! Far be it for teachers to perpetuate a political agenda that should be the subject of rigorous analysis and scrutiny. Far be it for teachers to tacitly comply with the deeply troubling political scheme that is drug prohibition.
If you are an educator, and you want to show your students the truth about drug harm, you should start with the chart shown above. Explore the harms and benefits or drug use fully, be honest about its history, encourage debate about the myriad political issues surrounded in both “The War on Drugs” and the purposes of drugs education. If you are a truly responsible educator, when a student says “I don’t think I’ll ever drink alcohol, instead I’ll occasionally use mushrooms and cannabis because the scientific research demonstrates reduced harm in that choice.” You would leave it be.