OPINION: Abstinence-based drug programmes are not fit for purpose

If you have followed my work, I think it’s likely that at some point in your life you may have experimented with recreational drugs at some point in your life. I don’t say this because I assume that my followers are drug-users, I say it because you are human, and drugs and alcohol are a staple of society. It’s fair to say that the vast majority of people have probably tried so-called “soft” drugs like cannabis in their life, and in fact many in the autistic community speak openly about self-medicating with cannabis.

This in particular is why I take such umbrage with abstinence-based approached to drug and alcohol education. These programmes teach people that drug and alcohol use is a shameful secret, to be hidden away. This in turn increases the risk of harm. Harm-reduction based approaches are vastly superior. We should be teaching people that drug and alcohol use is a normal part of society, and how to approach it in a sensible and safe manner.

Let me step back for a minute. I’m not saying we should teach people that substance use is okay. Substance use is dangerous, and associated with many negative life outcomes, but we should be honest with people about how prevalent it is our society. Kids in school should be taught the genuine effects of these drugs; physical, psychological, and socioeconomical. They should also be taught that if they DO use drugs, there are measure they can take to protect themselves from some of the more immediate harm.

Abstinence-based approaches are a symptom of a society that criminalises substance use. Substance use is a public health issue, not a criminal one. By criminalising substance use we create a black-market for them. It happened with drugs, it happened with the prohibition of alcohol. Entire criminal enterprises survive off of the illegality of the sale and posession of substances. I could write a whole piece on this topic alone, and most likely will.

Back to the point. Drug and alcohol related deaths will continue to rise until we move over to harm-reduction models. This can look like in school education on substance use. This can look like appropriate funding of mental health services. This can look like appropriate and affordable housing. It can also look like the decriminalisation of drug use. This list is non-exhaustive

Until these things are done, drug use will remain prevalent in our society. No amount of pleading and scaring will keep people away from recreational substances. We MUST embrace the fact that drugs and alcohol are here to stay, and move forward with commonsense approaches to that fact.

Published by David Gray-Hammond

David Gray-Hammond is an autistic mental health and addiction advocate living in the South East of England. He is in recovery from addiction and psychosis, as well as other complex mental health conditions. He was diagnosed as autistic seven months after achieving sobriety, and is resolved to share his experiences with the world in the hopes of being the person that he needed when he was younger.

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