Why Harm Reduction Must be Part of Drug Education for Children.

by Mary Biles

Fiona Spargo-Mabbs did everything any responsible parent should do to help their child navigate the confusing landscape of drugs and alcohol in adolescence. She maintained a safe space for son Daniel to talk about his thoughts and feelings surrounding the increasingly common situations in which drugs presented themselves and even took part in a six week course to ‘drug-proof’ your kids. 

And yet, the worst possible outcome did happen when 16-year-old Daniel died after taking higher than usual potency MDMA at a rave. Daniel’s tragic story is incredibly rare. While there are inherent risks involved with illicit drug taking, dying or becoming addicted are the anomalies. But there is a huge spectrum of harm that can happen in between, particularly when drug education can seem like little more than an afterthought in the statutory personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education national curriculum. Which is why Fiona wrote the book ‘I Wish I’d Known’ and set up the drug education charity Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation: to support young people to make safe choices about drugs and alcohol and reduce harm, as well as providing drug education and resources to parents and teachers.

“Dan’s was the worst case scenario,” says Spargo-Mabbs. “But drugs don’t need to do any harm to anybody. But you need to have the understanding and skills to be able to face those choices safely and to understand what that means.”

And right now, secondary school children are not equipped with this information. 

Hannah Dawes, a PSHE and religious studies teacher in Bath finds a disparity between the sex and relationship materials available to teachers compared with educating their students about drugs which she describes as impoverished. 

“Why hasn’t the government given more advice to teachers on this,” questions Dawes? “It literally just says on the guidance, drugs and alcohol education; it really doesn’t give many details to teachers on what they’re meant to be teaching. I still think that a lot of the time we’re teaching abstinence.”

“My message tends to be that the safest way is not to do drugs,” she says, “but we know that people are doing them. And therefore let’s talk about meaningful ways to reduce harm. I’ve noticed since I started teaching PSHE that children are so interested, they want the facts, so that then they can make informed choices, whether they’re at a party and someone offers them MDMA, they know the risks associated.”

In its recent policy paper “From Harm To Hope a 10 Year Drugs Plan to Cut Crime and Save Lives,” the government does make noises about harm reduction (a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use) in adult populations. However, incorporating the approach into drug education for teenagers is a rather more controversial subject. 

“Harm reduction is tricky in a universal setting,” says Fiona Spargo-Mabbs, who acknowledges that it took a long time to come round the merits of teaching harm reduction after her son’s death. “You have to be careful how you frame it, so that you’re not normalising drug use, but you are also giving young people the tools they need. So it is difficult. But as part of a preventative approach to drug education, harm reduction has to be part of that, but it needs to be age appropriate.”

As a teacher herself, Hannah Dawes also recognises the challenges. 

“I think it’s hard because harm reduction approaches are not foolproof,” she says. “There’s something uncomfortable about teaching harm reduction. So I think it’s important that teachers understand that this isn’t an easy thing to do.”

With this in mind, Hannah created Join the Exchange, which includes an educational series of videos about drugs, including an episode on harm reduction, as well as collaborating with Drug Science to produce some secondary school drug education resources for teachers. 

“I’m in a position where I’m saying, can we please start talking about this? I’m a teacher. I’m doing this. It’s not as bad as you think. And talking about these things isn’t making more children do drugs.”

But what does the evidence say? 

While a recent report from the Higher Education Policy Unit has found that in university age students “a zero-tolerance approach to illicit drug use may cause more harm than it prevents,” and goes on to “prioritise preventing drug harms over preventing drug use,” data for school age students is rather scant. What is clear is that teaching the ‘just say no’ message as well as purely knowledge-focussed content that doesn’t involve critical thinking and skill development about making safer choices is not an effective drug prevention approach in teens. 

Spargo-Mabbs, who recently spoke on a panel about what evidence-based drug education looks like at the UK Government’s Drug Summit in May, still feels a rather lone voice when it comes to championing the harm reduction message in drug education amongst policy makers. 

“The conversation is still so much around, what do we do about crime? What do we do about addiction? What do we do about drug deaths? Rather than saying, what do we do about getting in before all of that’s happened, and trying to give people choices and equip them to make choices that might avoid all of that stuff.

“The headlines are still very much around taking people’s passports away and banning them from football matches… We’re not going to stop the volume of drug use that the government wants to tackle without getting in before they’re in their 30s… Your average teenager, from your average family, they absolutely need to have really decent drug education now more than ever, because drugs are around now in a way that they just didn’t used to be. It’s frustrating that it just seems so obvious that education has to be part of prevention. Prevention shouldn’t be about stopping people getting hold of drugs when they’re using them already.”

Mary Biles is a plant medicine advocate, author of The CBD Book, medical cannabis writer and podcast host who loves to unpack the science behind medicinal plants and psychedelics. Tweets @Mary_Biles

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