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Do we really have a “drug epidemic”? Have things really changed since we were teens?

Earlier this week the Herald Sun published an article titled ‘Victorian schools swept up in drug epidemic as hundreds of children struggle with addiction’. Not surprisingly it attracted a great deal of attention, being picked up by most media outlets across the country, with radio and TV jumping onto the story very quickly. It came out just after I had written a blog on the fact that fewer Australian teens reported drinking alcohol (which some people refused to believe was true) and fed right into the belief of some that if indeed young people were drinking less then that had to be due to the fact that they were simply now using more illicit drugs (something that is not supported by the data that we have).

What about this story and the fact that according to the Herald Sun (and I would presume data they received from Victoria Police), police “have been called to investigate more than 450 drug offences on school grounds, or at school events, since January 2014” – what does that actually mean? Do the figures that were provided to the paper really mean that Victorian schools are being ‘swept up in a drug epidemic’?

Now, before I get into what these figures may or may not mean, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that we don’t have a problem with illicit drugs in schools. As the Education Department spokesman Alex Munro is quoted as saying in the story – “Our schools are a reflection of our communities, and unfortunately, the problems that we see in our community sometimes affect our schools.” It’s a great quote and he’s absolutely right – illicit drugs continue to be a problem in our society and it’s no surprise that illicit drugs can be found in schools. That said, does the data provided in this story support the notion that Victorian schools are being swept up in a “drug epidemic”? Absolutely not! If that was the case we’d be seeing many other indicators such as increasing number of young people being hospitalized, more drug-related deaths amongst our teens, rising youth crime rates and sky-rocketing drug arrests and charges amongst our school-based youth. If any of this was happening I am sure the Herald Sun would be the first to let us know about it!

All the data we have suggests that use of illicit drugs amongst school-based young people is low, far lower than it was in the 1990s (where we have comparable data). That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Drugs are certainly used by some teens and in some parts of the country there are real problems. Small regional centres, particularly in Victoria and WA, with lots of social problems such as high youth unemployment and poverty have been devastated by methamphetamine (or ‘ice’). In other parts of the country there is just greater access to some drugs and, for whatever reason, the use of these drugs have been normalized. It’s also important to remember that in higher socio-economic areas where teens have access to money, as well as greater freedom in many cases, drugs like ecstasy and cocaine are increasingly being regarded as just part of what you do when you socialize.

So what do these police figures actually mean? At this point I need to say that I have not been able to access the data that the Herald Sun was provided. Based on similar data released from other states in the past, however, here are some important things to consider when trying to interpret what police investigating ‘drug offences’ on school grounds could really mean …

Firstly, it needs to be stated that schools now have a legal obligation to contact the police should they find what they believe to be an illegal drug on the school grounds, regardless of whether the drug has been brought into the school by a student, an adult or whoever. If a drug or drug paraphernalia (e.g., a bong or an ice pipe) is found at a school on a Monday morning after a weekend, police need to be called. When the police are called to a school to investigate a drug issue it doesn’t necessarily mean a student was using a drug or even found with one. As the article states – “Some of the drug offences had been committed by older perpetrators, who were caught dealing and using within the school grounds.”

In many of these cases (particularly those involving primary school children) I can almost guarantee that the police were called because a child had brought a drug to school that they had found lying around at home. When I was a primary school teacher in the early 80s I can remember a couple of occasions over the years where very young students (Years 1 and 2) brought in drugs or paraphernalia for ‘show-and-tell’. I can’t imagine that has changed, although there would now be a greater range of drugs or equipment some children may now find. In the article the police are quoted as saying that “Kids aged 11, 12, 13 have been picked up with ice pipes on them” – without a doubt there would be some cases (particularly in areas with lots of social problems and disadvantage) where you may see drugs being used by this age group (many of these have been well-documented by the media), but for the most part children bringing pipes to schools would simply be doing that – bringing them to school – they’re certainly not planning to use them!

What I found most interesting in the piece is the reluctance of the reporter to mention the word ‘cannabis’. He talks about teens being caught with ketamine (twice!), LSD, ice, “dangerous new synthetic drugs”, as well as ecstasy, but fails to mention the illicit drug that we know is most likely to be used by school-based young people. Now, as I have already said, I don’t have access to the data that the Herald Sun was provided but I can almost guarantee that cannabis was the number one drug that police were called to deal with in schools. I can also tell you that if there had been a significant number of ice-related incidents the paper would have reported the actual number – there weren’t that many, so they just made sure to mention that it was in the mix. In 2015 the Sydney’s Daily Telegraph published a very similar story about police responding to drug-related incidents in schools. Once again, they highlighted the sensational, but at least they acknowledged that 75% of all the incidents were cannabis-related. Now I’m not trying to downplay the cannabis issue – it’s an illegal drug, but you need to ask yourself why didn’t the reporter mention it in the story? It’s simple, the other drugs sound so much more frightening and will grab attention. Cannabis is a drug that some readers may have used during their teens, it’s not scary enough – let’s throw in ketamine (twice!), parents reading the article won’t know what that is and that’s going to have more of an impact! Sad but true!

The article states that “drug-dealing charges have been laid in 78 cases”. It is not clear whether they were school students or not. This, once again, feeds into the myth that there is a lot of drug dealing going on in school grounds. I get contacted by many parents who “have heard stories” of dealing going on, only to have their concerns confirmed when some students (usually Year 9s) have been suspended or expelled. It is important to acknowledge, however, that many of these students who get caught bringing cannabis to school are just ‘silly kids’ – we’re not talking high-level drug dealers here. These teens usually don’t have a lot of friends and are able to access the drug in some way (e.g., steal it from an older brother or parent) and simply take it to school to impress a group of their peers. In many cases, there was no actual ‘dealing’ and some of those involved had rarely, if ever, actually used the drug. They just wanted to make friends, made a stupid decision and then found themselves in great trouble. As much as the article talks about “sophisticated rackets” being uncovered (and without doubt that sometimes happens), for the most part it’s just ‘silly kids’.

In addition, the reporter throws sentences around like “some children have landed in hospital after taking drugs on school camps” – no numbers are given or what drugs were involved. If you’re going to report a story like this, provide all the data – don’t ‘cherry-pick’ it and try to terrify people … No parent wants their child to be exposed to drugs when they go to schools and this story plays right into all those fears Mums and Dads have in this area.

Drugs have always found their way into schools. I went to a Catholic boys’ school in Perth in the early to mid 1970s and I remember wondering why on earth a group of my peers in Year 7 were sitting at a bus stop spraying ‘Pure and Simple’ into a brown paper bag and then passing it around to sniff it. As for illicit drugs, I first saw cannabis in Year 9 in Brother Alphonsus’s Social Studies class when someone handed me a matchbox and told me to pass it to the boy sitting next to me. I opened it up and saw a box full of what I thought was lawn clippings! It was also well known across the school that cannabis grew down by the school swimming pool. The group of older boys who planted and sold it had a thriving business … None of my friends were involved in that scene at all – it simply wasn’t a part of our lives and that’s exactly the same today. Yes, there will be some who will get involved but the majority won’t…

When I taught in the early 1980s I worked in a particularly tough school in a lower socio-economic part of Perth for a couple of years and we would often have to confiscate tins with small amounts of petrol or other products from Year 4s and 5s that they would bring from home, planning to sniff them at recess or lunchtime. I can also remember being given a small foil of cannabis by a Year 5 student I taught who had found it in the playground. My memory is that the principal simply flushed it down the toilet – we didn’t call the police. That just wouldn’t happen today …

What has certainly changed is the range of drugs that are now available, as well as access. In addition to ecstasy/MDMA, amphetamine and other drugs that may not have been as popular or accessible when we were young, GHB and ketamine have been added to the mix. When you add the growing number of emerging psychoactive substances (EPS) or ‘synthetic drugs’ that are now around, together with easy online access to substances, it’s not surprising that there is a great deal of fear in this area. It is important to remember, however, that most school-based young people don’t use these substances – once they leave (or become disengaged from) school, that all changes and changes quickly – but while they’re at school, for the most part they are protected.

I am fully aware that if a person reading this believes that drugs are spiralling out of control in our schools and classrooms, nothing I am going to say is going to change their mind … The fact that police have to be called to schools to investigate drug offences at all, of course is a concern and, in a perfect world, it wouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world and drugs are around and can be accessed by young people.

What I find offensive is the headline and the reinforcement of the belief by many that today’s young people are so much worse than previous generations, not only in the area of alcohol and other drugs but almost everything! There is certainly illicit drug use amongst some of our school-based young people and a small number who get themselves into great difficulty as a result of their drug use. But that is not a new thing – it’s always been there and there is no evidence to suggest that the situation has changed dramatically in recent years (in fact, the reverse is true – illicit drug use has reduced!). Yes, there is a greater range of drugs available today and increased access, mainly due to the internet, but most of our school-based young people make good choices in this area – but don’t let that get in the way of a good headline.

Published: June 2017

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