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Monday, 14 May 2012

New drugs and what to do with them

A couple of weeks ago the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) released a report that reported on the large number of new drugs that had been detected in the European Union in 2011. According to the report, a total of 49 new psychoactive substances were officially notified for the first time in 2011. This represents the largest number of substances ever reported in a single year, almost one every week, up from 41 substances reported in 2010 and 24 in 2009.

Many of these substances come under two main headings - 'synthetic cannabinoids' and 'synthetic cathinones'. Synthetic cannabinoids are the products often referred to in the Australia media as 'synthetic cannabis', with the best known of these being 'Kronic'. The cathinones are often described as being similar in effect to stimulant drugs like amphetamine, ecstasy and cocaine. The most popular of these is a substance called 'mephedrone'.

There was a time when substances identified in Europe or other parts of the world took quite a bit of time to make it to Australia. That is not the case today. The Internet has changed the way drugs are distributed and drug information is disseminated. Without a doubt some of these new substances are making it here and the problem is that we know nothing about them.

So why are so many of these substances popping up? Unfortunately, the way that authorities usually deal with a drug they know little or nothing about is to ban it. Making a substance illegal is supposed to stop people from using it - if you don't stop, there will be legal consequences. The theory behind banning something is simple but we know from experience that it doesn't always work that way.

Certainly some people change their behaviour when a substance is made illegal. You only have to look at the New Zealand experience around the 'party pills' phenomenon to see that when these products were made illegal many people stopped using them. That said, there are others who don't. In fact, for some people, the fact that it is illegal makes it even more interesting! This is particularly true for young people who are going through a time when they are constantly testing rules and boundaries, just to see how far they can go ...

Another unintended consequence of banning something is that people look for alternatives. This is when enterprising drug manufacturers start 'tweaking' molecules and change the existing 'illegal substance' into one that just manages to get around the new bans. Unfortunately, this is where it begins to get scary for those messing with these new substances because we have absolutely no idea of what it is that they are taking and what the potential risks could be for the user. They really are the 'guinea pigs' for the future!

Over the years I've seen Australian authorities ban many substances, usually not based on much evidence of significant harms, and usually useage rates have risen as a result. They certainly haven't disappeared because they were made illegal. With the large numbers of new substances coming onto the market we've got to find a better way of dealing with the problem.

Finding your child is using drugs

Welcome to the first of many (hopefully!) posts on my new blog - 'Doing Drugs with Paul Dillon'. The title comes from the radio show I did for many years on the national youth radio station - Triple J. Looking back on it, it was a pretty brave thing for them to do and I very much doubt whether we would get away with some of the things that we spoke about way back then .... That said, I hope that readers of the blog find its content useful, and that it provides me an outlet to let off steam occasionally!

It's going to take me a while to get going so if you happen to start reading this early in the piece and are disappointed that there isn't a lot here, I hope you will return later and take another look. Over time I'll try and post items like Opinion Pieces that I have written for newspapers and websites (I've put a couple up today), as well as make commentary on news stories of the day (particularly if they really get me angry) and highlight any new research that I find interesting. Of course, there is still my website but hopefully this will 'value-add' to that ...

Over the weekend I received an email from a mother had recently discovered that her teenage son was smoking cannabis. This was the second time he had been caught and he said he had smoked again as he didn't get an effect the first time and the approval of his peers was more important to him than how his parents felt. She was seeking advice on how to deal with the issue as she believed that simply yelling at him and confining him to his room was not going to work.

A parent discovering their child is experimenting with drugs is a pretty frightening experience and unfortunately hardly anybody is prepared for it. We know that the best way to respond is to take a breath, calm down, think through the issues and then respond accordingly - this rarely happens! We just fire off a punishment without really looking to the future!

The reasons that the young man gave for using cannabis are the 'normal' ones and much less worrying than others that could have been provided - "I use to feel better", "I use to forget", etc. This does not mean that there is not a problem - cannabis is illegal and should anyone get caught using or have it in their possession there could be life changing consequences! For example, f he got caught in a school situation there is every chance he could be suspended or even expelled!

My advice is as for any parenting situation - create rules and boundaries, make sure consequences are decided upon that will have an effect, and then follow through ... If your child has broken your rules and let you down, they have lost your trust - there must be consequences for that. Make these short, sharp and ensure they 'suit the crime' - grounding for long periods of time is just going to cause resentment and not solve anything ... Once you have dealt with the breaking of the rules, sit down and establish new rules around cannabis and then make sure that whatever you do, you follow through with the punsihments decided upon should he break the rules again ..

This sounds as though this is 'simple' experimentation but if it continues parents should seek professional help as early as possible. Remember there are no simple answers, every family is different and what will work for one may not work for another. If you are really concerned contact Family Drug Support (FDS) on 1300 368 186. This is a great organisation primarily made up of volunteers who have experienced first hand the trauma and chaos of having family members who use drugs. They have travelled the same road and will understand and refer you appropraitely.

Alcohol and young people

Here is an Opinion Piece I was asked to put together for the Newcastle Herald in February 2010 ....

Alcohol has always played a role in some young people’s lives. No matter what your age, if you cast your mind back to your final years of high school there were surely at least a small group of your classmates who were well known for their partying habits! Are we to believe today’s headlines that things are so dramatically different now?

Firstly, let me make something completely clear – we really have no evidence to indicate that we have more young people drinking than ever before. However, what we do appear to have is a hardcore group of risky drinkers who are drinking in a far more risky way than ever before. As already said, this group of risky drinkers have always been there – it’s just now they’re starting younger, drinking more, more often, and possibly most frighteningly their drink of choice is spirits, particularly vodka. So if they are such a small group why should we be so worried?

These young people, both male and female, are loud, they’re obvious and they attract a great deal of attention. These are the teenagers who get in trouble with the law, find themselves in accident and emergency rooms and find their stories on the front pages of newspapers across the country. As a result it appears that they’re a much larger group in number than they really are. Unfortunately, they’re also extremely influential and as a result their behaviour is perceived as the ‘norm’ by other young people. The belief that ‘everyone is doing this’ is extremely dangerous and needs to be challenged at every opportunity.

Adolescent drinking should really come as no real surprise. Drinking to the point of intoxication has become so normalised across our society that why wouldn’t our young people drink at high levels? Simply examine the role models that our children have to follow and it isn’t difficult to understand the pressures they face. What do they see in their own home? How do the celebrities and sport stars they look up to socialize? What is the one constant at almost every celebration in our society – whether it be a birth, a death, a victory or a loss? Alcohol is all pervasive and in recent years it appears to have gotten completely out of control.

One tragic consequence of this is young people dying. Over the years I have been involved with a number of teenagers who have died after drinking large amounts of alcohol. The last five schools I have been to where young people died all involved Year 10 girls who all died after each of them drank almost a bottle of vodka. None of these girls died alone. They all died in party settings and were being looked after by friends who were so drunk they really couldn’t look after themselves, let alone anyone else!

The Australian Government has made a commitment to dealing with the ‘teenage drinking issue’. A mass media campaign, a National Binge Drinking Strategy and funding of a range of community programs across the country have been rolled out but really what’s the point? What is the sense of pouring money into trying to deal with underage drinking if you don’t really deal with the problem for what it really is – a community issue?

Young people learn from watching those around them. Unless we address the wider community issues that we are facing with alcohol we will continue to see money poured into the ‘black hole’ that is underage drinking and nothing much will change. We know what will work when it comes to reducing alcohol problems in this country but none of the possible solutions are popular. Raising the price, reducing access and stopping alcohol advertising and sponsorship of sport are most likely to be the most effective ways to make real change, but it would be a very brave government who would really push any of these through. Try to reduce the average Australian’s access to alcohol and they will most probably find themselves out of power at the next election! That means we will continue to see lots of talk and most probably not a whole lot of real results and that is truly tragic for our kids.

Alcohol and parenting

Here is an Opinion Piece that I wrote in February 2011 for Melinda Tankard-Reist's website:

I often tell the story of my visit to a small country town waiting to give a presentation to a group of parents. I was waiting in a hotel room watching a news program and a story about young people and alcohol use was just about to begin. The piece started with a statistic, as they usually do, with the newsreader stating that “one out of every 10 young people binge drink”.  As you can imagine the story that followed was fairly alarming and I remember sitting on the bed with my head in my hands thinking what chance do our teenagers really have? That figure sounds pretty scary for parents and it is – drinking to excess is dangerous, particularly when you are dealing with the developing brain, but why must we always be pushing out a negative message when it comes to this issue? Wouldn’t it have been much more powerful and positive to have started the piece by saying that nine out of ten haven’t taken part in this activity?

Well the statistic was thrown around again today – only this time it was ‘one out of five regularly binge drink by the age of 16’. Once again, it’s a frightening statistic and one that all parents should be concerned about but truly why can’t we ever say anything good about our kids! Not all of them are doing this – in fact, the majority aren’t!
No-one should stick their head in the sand and pretend that there isn’t a problem. When it comes to alcohol – it would be true to say that most young people will experiment with it at some time during their adolescence, but constantly reinforcing the negative is not good for anyone! As a result, parents grow increasingly concerned and those young people who do not drink to excess (and most particularly those who do not drink at all) feel that there is something wrong with them.So what is the current situation when it comes to alcohol and young people in Australia?
Alcohol is such a huge part of Australian culture and it would be difficult to identify any social gathering that takes place in this country where it does not play a significant role. Whether it be a christening, a wedding, a funeral, a birthday party or simply getting together with a few friends for dinner – alcohol is there and often consumed to excess. As I always say, our young people learn from somewhere and we are very good teachers, even when we don’t want to be.
One of the most worrying things that I have noticed over the years is that parents now want to try and be their child’s best friend rather than their parent. It’s important to remember that your child has the opportunity to make lots of friends in their lives – they only get one set of parents and you are it! The fear that you may lose your relationship with your child if you act like a parent, particularly if you dare to say no to them, is irrational. Young people need parents to give them guidance and to set rules and boundaries around a whole range of activities, including alcohol use. Although teenagers may not always like the rules that are set, they are necessary and assist them to socialize with others in a responsible and healthy way.
Parents across the country are desperate for guidance on how to deal with the introduction of alcohol to their children. Unfortunately the jury is still out and there is no definitive answer that suits all families. One thing, however, is now extremely clear - the longer the human brain can avoid alcohol, the better chance it has to develop its full potential. All experts now agree that teenagers under 16 years of age should avoid alcohol.
This is a comparatively new message. For years when I was asked how and when to introduce alcohol to children, my response was “before someone else does and as early as you think appropriate, at a family meal.” That message has changed dramatically. You still want to try to ensure that your child’s first drink isn’t at a park on a Saturday night, but providing it too early, without clear rules and boundaries, is likely to be just as problematic.
Parents can make a real difference when it comes to alcohol consumption, particularly if they really put their mind to it. Here are some simple tips that may help:
Talk to your partner about the role alcohol plays in your lives and the message this is sending your children about its importance.
Set clear rules and boundaries early, ensuring your children understand why the rules exist, i.e. you love them and want to keep them safe.
Create consequences for breaking the rules and stick to them.
Educate by example – you are the most powerful role model in your child’s life – don’t make alcohol the focus of every social event.
Try not to drink every day and limit your consumption when you do drink.

About Me

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Paul Dillon has been working in the area of drug education for the past 25 years. Through his own business, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) he has been contracted by many organisations to give regular updates on current drug trends. He has also worked with many school communities to ensure that they have access to good quality information and best practice drug education. His book 'Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs' was released nationally in February 2009. With a broad knowledge of a range of content areas, Paul regularly appears in the media and is regarded as a key social commentator, with interviews on television programs such as Sunrise, TODAY and The Project.