When I was sixteen, a girl from my school died. We were not close friends, and I won’t pretend that we were, yet her death sent ripples through our community. She died after taking what we now know was a fake ecstasy pill – her face was pertinent in online and print press, with comment sections lamenting the ‘stupid loss’ of someone so young. Even worse, some went as far to say she ‘deserved’ it, ‘knowing the risks’ involved.
I spent fourteen years being educated in England. I vaguely remember a peer-led presentation series in sixth form, in which one group from my class delivered an impassioned speech about the legalisation of cannabis. We were reminded that caffeine, alcohol and tobacco were drugs, too, didn’t you know? But Drugs are Bad, and if we had any worries, the wonderful world of FRANK could help. Talk to FRANK – not us.
My drug education was paltry at best and dangerous at worst. Our teachers – as well intentioned as they may be – are ill equipped to deal with the topic, failed by a curriculum blind to real issues affecting students. It’s easy to understand their concerns – perhaps they want to keep parents happy, or want to avoid accusations of promoting drug use – but with drugs deaths in England and Wales at their highest since 1993, and doubling since 2006 in Scotland, we need to talk.
In 2013, Anne-Marie Cockburn turned her grief into action, following the accidental death of her teenager daughter, Martha. Martha had taken half a gram of 90% pure MDMA, killing her within hours – yet Anne-Marie blames the war on drugs for her death. A regular guest at schools and events, she advocates for a safety-first approach, believing her daughter was let down by a lack of regulation of drugs and legislation, bringing money into the economy and not organised gangs. We can’t just mourn unnecessary loss of life if we don’t make changes to stop more people becoming statistics.
Drug education is more than a political issue; it’s a health one, too. This increase in deaths, according to Ian Hamilton, substance abuse researcher at the University of York, is down to cuts to drug treatment services. In Glasgow, it was recently reported that the Central Station needle exchange had closed – a service that had supported 2000 drug users in the time it was open. This allowed drug users to access clean needles in a period of widespread HIV. While not an example of cessation support, services like this are necessary to public health: shutting them down with few alternatives suggests a closed book on a far-from-over issue.
There is a well-documented link between mental illness and substance abuse, including illegal drugs. We must address the causes – often linked to inequalities – through education, too, in a holistic manner. There is a difference in the reasons that draw people to take drugs recreationally from those who are dependent – drug education can’t assume otherwise. The language often used around those with addictions carries a stigma – phrases like ‘addict’ absolve the person of their past and what may have led them to drug use. There’s a hypocrisy in those who drop weekly in Sub Club judging people with addictions to drugs with less glamorous backgrounds – rather, those who are some of the most marginalised in our society – deserve empathetic understanding as well as education and policy that support them.
So what can we do for now? We have each other, at least. Look out for your friends if you’re taking drugs socially – be aware of the side effects so you know what to expect, and how to recognise a bad reaction. If necessary tell any healthcare professionals what you’ve taken, including alcohol and any prescription drugs, as this can affect the treatment they give. This is a health issue, not criminal; they won’t tell the police or your family. If you’re planning to take drugs, look into a testing kit – they’re available to buy online and indicate if what you’re using is fake or cut with other substances, allowing you to dose safer.
Drugs are not going to go away – we need education at all levels to make their usage safer. Using drugs isn’t a ‘stupid decision’, or one that people deserve to die from. Not those addicted to drugs, often failed by other services, too. Not Martha, whose death made her mother become an activist. Not the ‘silly’ girl a year above me at school, far from unaware of drugs, who became immortalised as a statistic.
[Amy Shimmin – @amylfc]
Reddit thread on testing kits.