Drug prevention: What can be done?

Drug prevention: What can be done?

Drug prevention: What can be done? 150 150 Stanislav Karmyšov

The use of illicit drugs remains an important public health issue in Europe in 2022. To foster drugs prevention, we must first define drug education in realistic terms, that is, what do we want our drug education to accomplish? The majority of drug education programs in Europe are aimed at preventing drug use.

But what exactly do we mean by drug prevention?

Drug prevention entails preventing or minimizing the use of drugs, as well as the health and social problems that come with it.

The World Health Organisation stated that:

‘The ultimate goal of prevention in the field of drug related problems is, broadly speaking, to ensure that the members of a given population do not use drugs at ail, i.e. abstentionism and consequently do not put themselves at risk of suffering damage or causing social harm.’

However, given the current drug-oriented society in which our young people live, there are two tiers of preventative actions or tactics with which we should be concerned if we are to completely handle the issue in the most thorough way possible.

These are:

  • Primary prevention which aims to ensure that a problem does not occur.
  • Secondary prevention which aims to reduce the prevalence of the problem or related harm within the society.

It is critical to understand the various parts of prevention in addition to understanding that prevention can occur on two levels.

Supply reduction. By limiting supplies at the place of origin, controlling supplies at the point of entrance, and controlling drug distribution inside the country, supply reduction tries to restrict or reduce the supply and availability of illicit drugs. This component of prevention is definitely a law enforcement concern, with the Police and Customs and Excise being responsible.

Demand reduction. Demand reduction can be defined as efforts aimed at preventing people from trying drugs in the first place, postponing the commencement of experimentation, reducing the number of people who use drugs, and finally stopping drug use completely.

Harm reduction. Harm reduction, often known as harm minimization, is a third part of prevention. Any effort aimed at reducing the harm caused by drug use is referred to as harm reduction. 

These components of prevention emphasize the necessity of recognizing that drug prevention is the duty of many different agencies. Youth organizations play an important role in both primary and secondary prevention, as well as demand reduction and, in some situations, harm reduction.

Drug prevention work is the responsibility of many organizations, and it includes a diverse set of activities carried out by and through cooperation between drug agencies, professionals working in education, health, welfare, and enforcement, national and local media, community groups, and the private sector. 

A ready supply will always be available when there is a demand for a product. In the last ten years, this has been increasingly apparent in many countries around Europe. We won’t be able to completely regulate the supply of drugs, so we’ll have to work together to assess demand and meet our obligations to the young people we work with in terms of equipping them with the knowledge and skills to make informed decisions about their drug use.

Preventive drugs education approaches

Many ways of drug education have been employed in the past, and many more are now being used in a variety of situations. Individual education programs have been used in the past with the belief that if we could make our young people strong enough, they would not use drugs. Information dissemination, conversation, social and personal growth, and life skills have all been used. The messages have ranged from “Just say no!” to “Reduce drug-related harm”.

According to latest surveys, direct communication of drug information to young people, even if intended to warn them of the dangers, is likely to lead to experimentation. Some types of drug education may actually exacerbate the problem. It was suggested that drug education should not be provided as a stand-alone activity for young people, but rather should be integrated into a larger context, such as health education, and should be carried out by workers who have ongoing contact with young people and can approach their work in a flexible and holistic manner.

The table below critically explores a variety of educational approaches used to address drug concerns to varied degrees. Before determining which technique/approaches best fulfill the needs of the organization, it is critical for organizations to carefully evaluate and explore different approaches, analyzing both the positive and negative aspects of each approach. 

Educational approaches

Approach Content Effectiveness
Didactic approach

  • shock-horror
  • scientific information
  • based on “deterrence by horrible example” theory, e.g. dead addicts on mortuary slabs
  • uses fear based propaganda
  • gives scientific information or facts about drugs
  • based on the belief that all behaviour is rational
  • assumes that increased knowledge will change behaviour
  • not effective, may have reverse effect
  • message may be not entirely rejected
  • may focus concern on dangers to others rather than to oneself
  • can increase knowledge
  • virtually no impact alone on drug use or intention to use drugs
Affective approach
  • considers individual and community attitudes and values to drugs
  • assumes that clarification of feelings will produce healthier behaviour
  • assumes that increased knowledge and clarified attitudes lead to behaviour change
  • can succeed in clarifying and/or modifying attitudes
  • marginal effect on knowledge or behaviour
Behavioural approach
  • based on increased life skills and social competence
  • assumes that drug use is a learned functional behaviour
  • assumes that increased self-esteem and social skills lead to reduced drug use
  • recognised as the “Just say no” approach
  • varying effectiveness according to the drug
  • can lead to reduction in e.g. smoking, alcohol use
  • may be criticised for being manipulative
  • can increase knowledge and modify attitudes
Situational approach
  • focuses on giving information and increasing decision-making skills when first offered drugs
  • assumes the situation or context for drug use is important
  • assumes specific skills are needed to make healthy choices
  • can improve decision-making skills
  • can increase knowledge
  • does not reduce experimentation with drugs
  • can promote less harmful methods and/or circumstances of drug use
Cultural approach
  • focuses on the social situation of drug user
  • considers how culture, race, class and income influence behaviour norms
  • assumes that socio-economic factors and behaviour norms influence drug use
  • Mirrors 
  • this is a new, holistic approach and is more pertinent in some areas than others flow socio-economic areas
  • recognises the realities of drug use
  • provides a focus for social change in which young people in a community setting are empowered to influence change and bring about change
Harm reduction approach
  • focuses on reducing or minimising harm related to drug use
  • examines the risk involved in the different drug
  • does not aim to prevent or reduce those using drugs. This approach may be combined with any of the other approaches mentioned above, depending upon the educational setting
  • Aimed at those already involved in using drugs
  • Not immediately effective in reducing the numbers using drugs
  • Has been effective in minimising harm among injecting drug users, but has not been assessed to great extent among non-injecting drug users

After looking at the various techniques that can be used to facilitate drug education, we should recognize that drugs education is facilitated by many people in many places, utilizing one or more of these approaches.  Because many young people interact outside of the school system, youth and social workers are well-positioned to play an important role in drug education, whether through formal, planned programs with specific groups, in a non-formal way with groups who regularly participate in an activity, leveraging relationships within the group and the activity’s continuity, or in an informal way, through contact outside of regular, planned activity, i.e. through social media. 

As a result, it is critical that the drug response be rooted in the community, where there are typically a large number of agencies and organizations to coordinate and assist the effort.

The material in this article was developed during the EU-funded Erasmus + project “Give Hugs not Drugs”

Stanislav Karmyšov

A youth worker and educator with extensive experience in the field of non-formal education.

All stories by : Stanislav Karmyšov

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