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Does drug education stop drug use?

In the past many people hoped that drug education would prevent young people from ever using drugs...

...this led some people to set unrealistic aims for their drug education programmes:

‘We do not wish to raise unrealistic expectations of what drug education can achieve. A pragmatic and realistic approach is needed by all – acknowledging that no conceivable approach will stamp out drug-taking altogether. However, there is a growing body of knowledge about the subject, and we are beginning to understand the complexities and know more about what works. Although it is a complex area and there are many reasons involved in the decision to take drugs, it is becoming clearer that drug education, based on lessons from research, delivered in the proper context and in the appropriate way has the potential to reduce drug misuse or at least to delay the onset of experimentation’.

Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) ‘Protecting Young People’ 1998.

It is important drug education is based on evidence about what works and what clearly does not work. Many drug education programmes have been evaluated in this country, other European countries and America. Collectively they show that:

  • The impact of drug education on drug using behaviour has been shown to be limited. Drug education alone is unlikely to prevent young people from ever experimenting with drugs.
  • ‘Just Say No’ and ‘shock/ scare’ approaches are likely to be ineffective and may even be counterproductive.
  • Good quality drug education can impact on changes in specific drug using patterns and reduce the use of drugs and associated problems for young people.
  • Drug education can contribute towards decreased harm and increased safety for young people, their families and communities. Drug education has been part of effective needle exchange schemes, ‘safer dancing’ initiatives and ‘drink-driving’. However, the impact of more general, and particularly school-based, drug education on reducing drug-related harm (rather than whether or not people have ever used drugs) has not been measured in any studies.

‘Establishing the effectiveness of drug education is a complex task. Almost all evaluations of programmes have been inconclusive in terms of perceived results in reducing or preventing drug use. Where programmes have shown positive results, the benefits have been in improved knowledge, decision-making skills, and improved self-esteem. Personal and social skills, however, have not been shown in themselves to relate directly to the prevention of drug use’.

DfEE ‘Protecting Young People’ 1998.

  • Accurate and up to date information about drugs is an important component of drug education.
  • Wherever possible, programmes need to go beyond information provision to include exploration of attitudes and values and the development of personal and social skills. Life skills approaches are likely to be most effective.
  • In schools and youth and community settings drug education is best addressed through a comprehensive and well-planned programme of personal, social and health education (PSHE). In most cases it is more realistic for organisations that deliver drug education to focus on educational, rather than behavioural, aims. Broad educational aims of drug education include:
  • To increase knowledge and understanding of drugs, their use and dangers, the law and helping agencies through provision of accurate and up to date information.
  • To explore a range of views, clarify attitudes and challenge stereotypes.
  • To develop a range of skills to enable young people to make their own, informed decisions about drugs – whether that be take them or not. (Such skills might include assessing and avoiding risks, communicating with others, assertiveness, accessing information and advice, helping others, first aid etc.)

A useful definition of drug education is ‘the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skills and exploration of attitudes and values which facilitate young people to be able to make informed decisions about their own, and other people’s, use of drugs’.

Ofsted 'Drug Education in Schools' 2005.

The 2005 Ofsted report, Drug Education in Schools, surveyed the state of drug education in UK schools and made recommendations for how to improve. Their findings included:

  • Since the last comprehensive drug education report in 1997, pupils' achievement in terms of their knowledge and understanding of drugs and their effects has improved. The more effective lessons also challenge pupils' attitudes and help them develop a range of skills such as those of decision making and being assertive.
  • Despite the good attempts being made by over half of schools to engage the pupils in a dialogue about drugs, the lack of understanding of their needs remains a problem.
  • There has been little research to evaluate the outcomes of most drug education programmes, making it difficult to compare their effectiveness.

The report made recommendations including:

  • In order to devise a curriculum to meet the needs of the pupils, schools should employ a variety of ways of gathering evidence of pupils' existing knowledge of drugs and attitudes towards them.
  • The overwhelming majority of young people regard tobacco and alcohol as the drugs that pose the most significant danger to them. This should be taken into consideration when determining the balance of time to be given to education about specific drugs and solvent abuse.
  • Links between drugs and themes such as sex and relationship education need to be more explicit so that pupils understand the links between drug use and risk-taking behaviour.
  • Some secondary schools should consider the benefits of specialist teaching about drugs with a view to raising the quality, consistency and coherence of the teaching.
  • High quality training is essential for teachers and for external contributors to enable them to keep their specialist knowledge up to date and to be flexible in their teaching methods in light of pupil needs.

Education not propaganda

It is important to distinguish between educational approaches and propaganda, as the two often get mixed up.

Educational approach

An educational approach focuses on provision of accurate and balanced information. It accepts that there are different views about drug use and encourages young people to explore a range of views, to develop their own opinions and also to challenge stereotypes. In terms of skill development an educational approach helps young people develop a range of relevant personal and social skills so they can make their own, informed decisions about their own, and other people’s, drug use.


In contrast, approaches that exaggerate dangers, limit discussion, perpetuate stereotypes and ‘tell’ young people what to think and do - can be more accurately described as propaganda rather than education. Propaganda discourages the development of informed decision making. It also increases the likelihood of young people feeling that drug education is irrelevant, that they are being patronised and that they are not being told the truth or given a balanced picture.

In the past many drug education programmes targeted at young people have been more in the realms of propaganda. In contrast, to be effective drug education should be firmly based on educational principles.


Coggans N, Shewan D, Henderson M and Davies JB ‘National Evaluation of Drug Education in Scotland’, ISDD 1991. (The largest evaluation of school drug education in the UK. Concludes that drug education does not stop drug use even though many professionals think that it does).

Coggans N and Mckellar S ‘Drug use among peers: peer pressure or peer preference?’, Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy Vol. 1 No. 1 1994. (Summary of research studies showing that overt peer pressure is not usually a factor in why young people experiment with drugs).

Coggans N and Watson J ‘Drug Education: Approaches, Effectiveness and Implications for Delivery’, Health Education Board for Scotland, Working Paper No.1 1995. (Summary of international research into the effect of drug education).

Cohen J ‘Drug education: politics, propaganda and censorship’, Druglink, ISDD March 1996. (Article summarising research into effectiveness of drug education and the way some findings have been suppressed for political reasons).

Cohen J 'Dealing with Drugs', Healthwise 1996. (Pack based on a whole-school approach which includes information and training activities about understanding young people's drug use and developing effective drug education programmes in schools).

Department for Education and Employment ‘Protecting Young People - Good practice in drug education in schools and the youth service’, 1998. (Latest guidance for schools and the youth service about drug education programmes and managing drug incidents. Includes information about the effectiveness of drug education).

Dorn N and Murji K ‘Drug Prevention: a review of the English language literature’, ISDD 1992. (Summary of international research into the effect of drug education).

Hurry J and Lloyd C ‘A Follow-up Evaluation of Project Charlie: A life skills drug education programme for primary schools’, Home Office Drug Prevention Initiative, Paper 16, 1997. (Research study that suggests drug education at primary school age may have the potential to delay the age at which young people experiment with drugs. Much quoted as evidence that drug education can change drug using behaviour but unfortunately the sample sizes are too small to draw any such conclusion).

Ofsted 'Drug Education in Schools', 2005.

Plant M ‘Risk Takers: Alcohol, Drugs, Sex and Youth’, Routledge 1992.

SCODA ‘The right approach – Quality standards in drug education’, 1999.(Planning schedules and guidance for schools).

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