The Hungarian police launched an anti-drug campaign based on the story of a 17-year-old boy who jumped out from the window while high on drugs. But telling scary stories to young people will not prevent accidents. Creating an environment where young people can access reality-based education and support, can.
The media reported a terrible accident in Budapest in May this year. A 17-year-old boy fell from a window and died. Before his suicide, he attended a house party with his friends where they used alcohol and illicit drugs, including amphetamine, cannabis, and LSD. He mixed drugs and soon got paranoid and started to destroy the furniture and harm himself. His friends could not stop him when he jumped out through the window.
The Hungarian police are now building a prevention campaign around this tragedy. They persuaded the friends of the victim to participate in a video where they tell his story and ask other young people not to make the same mistake – and never ever do drugs. Because drugs are bad, and you can die from drugs. The police hope that telling tragic stories like this one will deter other young people from experimenting with drugs, and thus prevent death and suffering.
But according to a growing number of professionals working in the field of prevention and harm reduction, there is a major problem with this scare tactic. Namely, it does not work. What is more, in some cases it can have a boomerang effect, as we learned from the evaluations of DARE’s ‘just say no’ programs in the US.
The most popular, German-owned commercial TV channel in Hungary, RTL Klub, produced a pretty good report about the police scare campaign that presented arguments from both sides, including from the author of this article. I told the reporter that there are alternatives to scare tactics and presented our Just Say Know video series as one example. What we need is reality-based and non-judgmental education that does not demonise drug use as such but raises awareness of the importance of harm reduction.
There was another recent tragedy in Budapest which highlights the importance of harm reduction. It involved another 17-year-old boy who borrowed a car and was driving it without a licence in Budapest late at night. He drove the car into a pylon and died immediately.
Just imagine if the police were to launch a prevention campaign based on this story with this message: “Driving is dangerous, driving kills, never ever drive a car!” Would it make any sense? Drivers would be right to point out that it is not driving itself that kills but irresponsible behaviour. It is not only the car that causes an accident but other factors as well. There are objective factors (slippery road, fog) and subjective factors (inexperienced, exhausted etc driver) behind each and every risky situation on the roads. There is no way to be 100% safe, but people can learn how to mitigate these risks and avoid accidents.
This is very similar to doing drugs. It is not the drug in itself that causes an accident like the one described above but ‘set’ (our mental state, knowledge, experience etc.) and ‘setting’ (the environment in which we use and the people we use with). By adjusting set, setting, and dose to each and every drug use session we can learn to mitigate the risks of drug use. Again, there is no way to be 100% safe; there can always be something we did not expect. But the vast majority of accidents would be avoidable with appropriate preparations.
The problem with scare campaigns like the one launched by the Hungarian police is that they show a diffuse picture about drugs where an inescapable road leads directly from experimentation to death, disease, and addiction. It says nothing about the risks of specific drugs in specific situations, and methods to mitigate these risks. It depicts drug use as a zero-sum game, as Russian roulette. And it ignores how prohibition itself leads to greater risk-taking by increasing unknown factors, such as the quality of drugs in the black market, or the risk of arrest and imprisonment.
In an upcoming report we produced with a group of other NGOs in an Erasmus+-funded international project, “Let’s Talk About Drugs – new methods of communication with youth”, we assessed drug education in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, and Serbia. We found that in most of these countries most drug prevention programs are still based on the old-fashioned ‘just say no’ agenda.
Young people are sceptical about these programs and feel alienated by their didactic, demonising messages. They are not stupid. Most of the time they know more about drugs than their teachers or parents, but what they are missing is experience about their own limits. What works with teens is not scaring them but to build trust and have an honest conversation where adults share and discuss their experiences and, even more importantly, listen to young people. Because there is a huge pressure on young people to perform in a competitive educational system. But in most Central-Eastern European countries they don’t have opportunities to express their feelings and ideas.
Recreation is so important in our lives. Teens need creative, meaningful recreational activities where they can explore new things. Where they can feel they belong. Where they can play and feel free. Providing alternative forms of recreation is important but it will not prevent everybody from experimenting with drugs altogether. Experimentation with risky behaviours such as sex or drugs is a natural part of growing up for many teens. But we can do a lot to minimise the risks of these experimentations.
Reality-based and pragmatic education is necessary but not sufficient. We need to focus on risk environments rather than only on individual risks. Traffic as a system is designed to minimise risks and accidents. We need to apply the same harm reduction philosophy to designing drug policies. We have to design schools, families, neighbourhoods, and nightlife scenes/festivals to promote healthy choices. And it is not only rules that make a community safer, but solidarity with less privileged people.
We need to support the growing number of young people who have mental health problems and suffer from childhood trauma. Kids who grow up in unstable families, in poverty and social exclusion need special attention and support. We should make sure that they are never scared to ask for help. To achieve this, we need to decriminalise drug use and enable harm reduction programs such as drug checking services.
I think good prevention is not only a one-way information flow from educators to the passive kids. And it does not only focus on risks and dangers. It is an interactive learning process where the educators should learn from young people to be able to support them. It is about how to enjoy life and not only about how to avoid harms.