A former crystal methamphetamine (or ‘ice’) user in Queensland announced in August 2016 that her business was talking to primary and secondary school students about her experience with the drug.
Her approach involved describing to young audiences her drug use, her dependence, and her way of life that followed, including criminal acts and acts of self-harm.1
Although it may be done with good intentions, this approach is at best a waste of time and at worst could potentially increase the chance of future drug harm; not least of which because it could have prevented more useful drug prevention approaches from taking place.
Stories of lived experience have a limited role
People who have recovered from drug dependence, or who are in the process of recovery, can have an important drug treatment role in sharing their experience with people in a similar situation who benefit from that model.
However, stories from former drug users are not effective drug education.
‘Testimonial education’ is a proven failure in the drug field, as in many other areas. In fact, it is counterproductive, as it can encourage drug use among susceptible or vulnerable young people.
No reputable drug education body recommends former drug users talk about their past to young people.
There’s a risk of glamourizing
Former drug users inadvertently risk glamourizing drug use, particularly for those young people who are already attracted to drugs. This is because the former-user’s experience gives them status and shows that drug use needn’t be a lifetime problem.2
A recent review of alcohol education cautioned schools to avoid focussing too strongly on ‘risks related to drinking’ as some teenagers see risk as exciting and to be embraced.3
When former drug users speak honestly about their drug use it is difficult for them not to highlight the subjective benefits: the former drug dependent Russell Brand has said: “I cannot accurately convey to you the efficiency of heroin in neutralising pain. It transforms a tight, white-fist into a gentle, brown wave.”4 This could be comforting for those who feel psychological, emotional or mental anguish.
There is a lot of evidence that well-meaning, explicit and heavy-handed warnings about risky behaviour can backfire and encourage young people to engage with drugs or dangerous driving.5,6
Two recent examples are a national anti-drug campaign and the Montana Meth Project. A National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign funded by the US Congress whose chief component was anti-drug advertising on radio and TV was ended prematurely when the official evaluation reported young girls with the highest exposure to the campaign’s advertisements were more likely to begin marijuana use than girls who were less exposed to the campaign.7
Then there were the claims that a graphic advertising campaign in Montana, which showed horrifying effects of methamphetamine, led to reductions in use. These were later shown to be false by an independent review that found methamphetamine use was declining in Montana prior to the campaign, and it continued to decline in states where the campaign did not run.8
Why schools do it
Schools sometimes invite former drug dependent people to speak to students on the assumption that they will listen to a person who has ‘been there’ and that they will ‘learn’ from that experience.
This is flawed logic.
If that method worked, no one would speed in a car after meeting a paraplegic who was crippled in a traffic accident, and the road toll would be substantially less.
The idea that people will avoid drugs if they understand the risks and dangers is simply wrong.
Peaches Geldof is a good example. Her mother, Paula Yates, died of a heroin overdose in 2000 when Peaches was eleven years old. Peaches herself died of a heroin overdose at the age of 25 in 2014.9 For most of her life she knew, better than most people, that heroin was dangerous.
We have to give up the belief that people who use drugs don’t understand the risks, and that if only they had known someone earlier who had suffered harm from drugs they would not have started in the first place.
The ‘scared straight’ message
The ‘scared straight’ message wears off quickly. Testimonials by former drug dependent users cannot eliminate the powerful reasons behind someone choosing to begin using drugs (such as curiosity, adventure, peer pressure, rebellion, emotional pain) and why they continue (enjoyment, rebellion, lifestyle, emotional pressures, mental problems, dependence).
No one believes they will become drug dependent when they start, so it is easy for audience members to discount the former user’s problems as not relevant for them.
Logically, there is no reason to believe that someone recounting their ‘lived experience’ will influence the future drug use their audience members.
We know parents, siblings and peers are the most important influences on the drug use of young people.10,11
Some studies have found a strong predictor as to whether a person will use drugs is their friends’ drug use.12
We also know that people most at-risk of drug use — and problematic drug use in particular — are dealing with past or present difficulties, including trauma of various kinds, rejection, loneliness, isolation or mental illness.13
Having heard the story of a former drug dependent stranger does not outweigh the influence of significant people in a person’s life or the challenging situations in which people can be involved.
The best approach to school-based drug education
The Australian publication, Principles of school drug education, which advises teachers on best practice, emphasises that drug education is best delivered by a student’s usual teachers.14
In summary, effective school drug education should incorporate:
Talks by visitors do not help to develop those skills.16
Be led by the best evidence
Schools need to act on the best available evidence when it comes to drug prevention.
They should provide drug education according to the established principles that are distilled from worldwide research, and can keep up-to-date with the latest findings published by reputable organisations. This includes the review of alcohol education published by the National Centre for Education and Training in Addictions, and the Positive Choices website at the National Alcohol and Drug Research Centre, which includes internet access to various resources including the CLIMATE drug education program. 18
School ethos is also an important protective factor. Schools actively involved in health promotion can diminish the effect of personal and social risk factors that encourage substance use, and at the same time, promote protective factors that lower drug use.
Protective factors include: