Saturday, 31 January 2015

Do we really want to live in a world where we drug test our kids?

Each year the issue of schools drug testing our kids pops up and receives a flurry of media attention. A couple of weeks ago I highlighted a Herald Sun story titled 'Ice Hits Schools', a woeful piece of journalism that provided no evidence to back up the sensational headline and opening paragraph - "Desperate schools have flagged drug-testing their students to try to combat the rampant abuse of ice and other illicit substances".  As I said in that blog entry, there was a very 'wishy-washy' statement claiming the paper had been told that "some schools" had made contact with agencies, asking about drug testing and that an agency "confirmed that it had been approached by both teachers and parents" but that was it!

We now live in a world where drug testing is becoming increasingly popular, e.g., roadside saliva drug testing or workplace drug testing. There are websites that provide parents with kits, swabs, and a variety of other materials to use to identify whether their child is in fact using drugs. There are even companies in Australia that now offer parents a sniffer dog for hire to test whether their child has brought illegal drugs into their home! Has the world gone completely insane?

My greatest problem with drug testing our kids is the message it sends to them about how prevalent we think drug use is amongst our teens. Have we really got to the point where we believe there is so much drug use in our schools that we need to randomly drug test them? I keep saying it, but if you look at all the data we do have about school-based young people and their drug use, 'recent use' (use in the last 12 months) is at some of the lowest levels we've seen - the truth is that most Australian secondary school students don't use illicit drugs. It certainly changes when they leave school, with drug use peaking when they reach their 20s, but to my knowledge no general population data suggests that teen use is at epidemic proportions! Now it may be true that we may see changes in the upcoming data that has recently been collected but will it show 'spiralling drug use' amongst this group? I very much doubt it.

To my mind, implementing drug testing in schools (random or otherwise) simply sends the wrong message to our kids and is fraught with a range of problems. Some of my major concerns are as follows:
  • Those young people who are taking drugs are likely to find ways of getting around testing. You only have to do a quick search of the web to find a range of sites that provide methods of passing different drug tests. Who would have ever thought that urine would ever become something such a valuable commodity and that there would be sites dedicated to its sale? Realistically, those young people who are regularly using drugs are going to find ways of beating a drug test, and remember if schools ever decide to go down this path (god forbid!), the type of testing is likely to be the least intrusive possible, making it far easier to beat
  • It's incredibly costly - random school drug testing is expensive and at a time when all schools (no matter how wealthy they may be) are tightening their belts and watching every penny, you would hope there would be more cost effective ways of dealing with potential drug use than getting students to urinate into little bottles. Really the only people who are winning out here are the drug testing companies!
  • 'False positives' are possible and can devastate a young person's life. As much as testing companies will try to sell their products as 100% accurate - that just isn't the case - the tests are not foolproof. If even one young person gets a false positive and their life is ruined by the result then that's one too many! Once someone is labelled as a drug user in a school setting, no matter what evidence comes next to disprove that finding, that label will stick to some extent
  • Parents love the idea until it is their child that gets busted! It's all well and good parents supporting this strategy but what if it was their child that got tested and came up with a positive result (false or not)? I can guarantee that their stance would then change very quickly ...
  • The potential harm to the child-school relationship is huge - launching a school drug testing program potentially damages all the wonderful work that schools do to build a safe, connected community. As the American Academy of Pediatrics (yes, American!) noted "Drug testing poses substantial risks—in particular, the risk of harming the parent-child and school-child relationships by creating an environment of resentment, distrust, and suspicion" - I couldn't have said it better myself ... 
  • Most importantly, what does the school do once they identify someone who has taken drugs? And this is where it gets really difficult - if you're going to go looking for something, you've got to make pretty damn sure that you know what you're going to do if you find it! Once again, parents are all 'gung-ho' about this until it is their child that gets caught. If a teen gets a positive test and is then 'moved on' from the school (or even suspended for a period of time), the reality is that they are then branded for life as a 'druggie' - no-one wants that. Very few schools have been successful in working out what to do with students who have been caught using drugs - it's a difficult area and one that is made even more complex with drug testing
Now I want to make it clear that I believe there is a place for certain types of drug testing – testing in a treatment context where you are trying to assess whether a person is 'clean' or not makes sense. Workplace drug testing where intoxication could lead to significant harm for the user and those around them (e.g., drivers of public transport or heavy machinery, airline pilots) is also important. But even then, as already said, many of these tests are not completely reliable and 'false positives' can lead to devastating consequences for those involved, even in treatment settings. This is happening while drug testing companies across the world are making millions promoting the message to as many people as possible that this is the way to go. Surely there has to be a better way - particularly as far as school-based young people are concerned.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

When you ask your child if they take drugs and they say 'no' - what do you do then?

Last week I posted a link to a newspaper article on my Facebook page that told the story of every parent's worst nightmare - the drug-related death of a child. Jennifer and Cees Janson were brave enough to go public about the death of their 19 year-old son who was on a 'gap year' in Canada who suffered a suspected drug overdose after combining cocaine with sleeping pills in September last year. It needs to be made clear that the coroner’s report has not been finalised as yet, but according to Mrs Janson the preliminary findings do suggest that drugs were a contributing factor.

It appears that the parents agreed to the interview because they "wanted other parents to read their story and have an honest conversation with their children about drug use." Mrs Janson's words are very powerful and her words clearly show she has had some time since her son's death to think through this incredibly difficult situation:

"Parents need to be able to have the conversation with their kids, but in a really non-threatening way so they feel like they don’t have to lie ... Martin has died, Georgina Bartter has died [after a reaction to an ecstasy tablet at a Sydney music festival late last year] and yet kids still keep taking drugs ... We can't just lay down the law and say they can't have them, we need to let them tell their side of the story, why they do it. At the end of the day, you want your kids to come home safe from a night out. Martin didn't."
It's so easy to go down the 'just say no' and 'get tougher' lines - we hear it every time we have a drug-related death of a young person. 'Throw them in jail', increase penalties and put more police on the streets are usually suggestions for fixing the problem but you only have to look at the US where they have some of the toughest drug laws in the world and see that 'getting tough' really hasn't made a dent into youth drug use. I love that this mother has included as part of a possible solution asking 'why they do it' - it's something that so many people ignore but it is so important to acknowledge if you ever really want to make a difference in this area.
It is the following quote from the mother, however, that I feel every parent of a teenager should take a long-hard look at. 
"He was such a clean-cut kid ... We had no concept of the drugs, we were in denial ... He was such an honest kid and we had even asked him about drugs and he denied it."
That really raises an important question, once you have actually asked your child - "Are you taking drugs?" and they answer you and tell you that they're not, what more can you really do?
There are no easy answers here, but if you're ever going to ask the question, here's how I suggest you handle it:
  • Before you ask, establish why you're asking the question. Realistically, for a parent to ask their teen whether they're using illegal drugs or not, there usually has to be a reason. This question doesn't come from nowhere (and if it did, why?) - there are usually some clues from the teen's behaviour, a particular incident, something is found in their room or pockets or the like to lead a parent to take the plunge and ask the question. Never ask the question on a whim - think through carefully why it's being asked and remember that if they tell you they are or have taken drugs, you need to know what you are going to do with that information
  • When you ask, be as prepared as possible. If you have reason to believe that they are using drugs and you are concerned about that - when you ask the question, be prepared with all your evidence. They'll most probably have an answer for everything, or respond by throwing a tantrum or accuse you of not trusting them, but laying out clearly why you have found it necessary to ask the question is vital
  • Make it clear to them why you are concerned about them taking drugs. Regardless of their answer, it is extremely important that you take the opportunity to clearly express why you are worried about drugs. What is it that you are really worried about? It staggers me sometimes when I meet a parent who has had no problem with their 15 year-old son or daughter going out every weekend drinking alcohol (because "that's just what kids do!"), but when they find out they've gone to a dance festival and taken a pill they're horrified and come down on them like a ton of bricks! All drug use entails a degree of risk - work out clearly what risk is it that you're worried about. Make sure you think this though carefully and don't just fall into quoting tabloid newspapers - get the facts and then establish an effective argument. "It'll kill you" is not likely to cut it! Most young people who use drugs like ecstasy and cocaine don't die - of course it's a risk, but it's not a line that works well with many teens and if they're already using drugs, it's not likely to be part of their experience so they will reject it. Without a doubt it is the illicit nature of drugs that cause the majority of young people and their families the greatest harm -i.e., if they get caught with drugs, their lives could change forever - teens simply can't argue with that!
  • Be prepared for them to lie to you - one of the things that parents must always remember is that teens will lie through their teeth to get what they want, as I always say, 'you can't trust an adolescent'! Your child could be the most honest, up-standing young person on the planet but if lying means they will be able to go a party on Saturday night, or result in them not being grounded for the next fortnight, he or she is likely to do it! If you have reason to believe that your child could be taking drugs (whatever those reasons may be), simply accepting what your child tells you as 'gospel' is risky, no matter how honest you think they are
  • If you don't believe them, don't be frightened to ask again and again, and again and again! Now this could look as though I'm suggesting you nag your child to death but that's not what this is about ... it's all really about how you ask the question. If it's asked from a loving and caring place, not accusatory and you make it clear to them that you will love them no matter what they do, you just want to have an open and honest dialogue with them - you just may get to them and they could tell you all!
I'll say it again, if you're going to ask this question there usually has to be a good reason why. If they are able to address your concerns adequately and it is clear that they are not at risk, then all well and good, move on. If they're not, blindly trusting them because they're a good kid and you have a good relationship with them is risky and you will never forgive yourself should something go wrong down the track. Always remember though, if you're going to ask this question, you've got to be prepared for one of two answers. All is fine if they say they haven't taken drugs, but what if they turnaround and tell you they are? How should a parent best respond to that situation? That'll be the next blog entry ...

Sunday, 18 January 2015

'Ice Hits Schools': Where is Media Watch when you need it?

Earlier this week the Herald Sun ran a front page story with the headline 'Ice Hits Schools'. In reality that was not what the story was actually about - little, if any of the piece had anything to do with schools. There were in fact three stories written on the topic of methamphetamine, all presented under the banner of 'Our Ice Scourge'! The paper had found a 20 year-old young woman who was willing to talk about a period of her life when she was an 'ice addict' and this personal story (along with photographs) was accompanied by two smaller pieces, one on ice now being the drug of choice among male prisoners seeking treatment in Victoria and the other titled 'Drug testing mooted as ice hits schools'.

The story does provide some figures showing the number of young people seeking treatment in Victoria and they are quite shocking (since 2009-10, 49 children aged 10-15 received help for methamphetamines, including five aged 13!) but the headline simply doesn't match the story. These young people are indeed school-aged but does this mean that they were using the drug at school, bought it there or whatever - absolutely not! Nowhere in the piece do they supply any figures on ice use amongst school-based young people and the opening line of the story - "Desperate schools have flagged drug-testing their students to try to combat the rampant abuse of ice and other illicit substances" - simply isn't supported by any real evidence at all. There is a very 'wishy-washy' statement claiming the paper had been told that "some schools" had made contact with agencies, asking about drug testing and that an agency "confirmed that it had been approached by both teachers and parents" but that hardly matches the sensational headline and first paragraph!

The sad thing about stories (and particularly the headlines) like this is that they do have an impact. The reality is that many people wouldn't have bothered to read anything below the headline, and if they did, they were likely to stop reading about three or four paragraphs down ... People walking past a newsagent, someone paying for their petrol or sitting opposite someone reading the paper on the train or bus are all likely to have just seen that front page headline - 'Ice Hits Schools'. Unfortunately, if you start to see a message like that enough times, you are likely to start believing it!

Now I'm certainly not saying that ice is not a problem - it's a nasty drug that is causing major problems in our community. Do some school-based young people use ice? Absolutely! But it's expensive (if you've read that it's around $50, that's correct - for a 'point' of the stuff - that's 0.1 of a gram! If you want to buy a gram of ice you could be looking at anywhere from $500-$800! That's about twice the cost of cocaine and far more expensive than other drugs like ecstasy), regarded by many young people as a 'gutter drug' and something to avoid, and for the most part, those that do use it regularly have to commit crime to subsidise their use, and often have a range of other social problems in addition to their substance use.

Every bit of data that we have on drug use across the general population indicates that methamphetamine use is not 'spiralling out of control'. We don't necessarily have more methamphetamine users, it's just that those who do use are now more likely to be using 'ice' instead of the less potent form of the drug, 'speed'. This is causing them to experience far greater problems and we are therefore seeing more people seeking treatment. When it comes to schools, the latest research showed that 'recent use' (use in the last 12 months) of all drugs, apart from cannabis, had actually decreased. Now for some parts of the country that are experiencing significant problems with ice, this just won't ring true - these areas are doing it tough and they certainly need help. As I've said in previous posts, these areas usually have a range of other social problems as well - ice often finds itself in a particular area for a reason. Not only do these areas need assistance with reducing the supply of the drug, as well the provision of treatment and education, they also need help dealing with some of the underlying problems that may exist in the community that may contribute to people gravitating towards this particular substance.

Headlines like this don't help the situation one bit! Unfortunately, they're not written to inform, something I thought was meant to be the basis of good journalism. Instead these stories and their accompanying headlines are written to shock and scare - something they do very well!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Australian teens and 'jungle juice': The resurgence of interest in 'poppers'

I'm not sure how many of you are aware but I write two blogs, this one for adults (parents or those people who are interested in or work with adolescents), the other - 'The Real Deal on Drugs' - is for young people. More specifically, it is a blog designed to provide the opportunity for students that I speak to across the country to ask me questions that they may have that they did not feel comfortable asking me face-to-face, or something that they thought of after I left the school.

It is proving to be quite popular (I'm getting twice as many visits to that site as I am to this one!) and some of the questions I get asked have proven to be quite challenging to answer! I want to make sure I am as honest as possible (visitors won't come back if they think they're being lied to) but also ensure that it doesn't appear to condone or promote alcohol and other drug use. It's a very fine line and each of the responses I have given have taken quite a long time to put together . Most interestingly though, some of the questions have also provided a real insight into the drug-using behaviour of Australian young people ... that was certainly the case with a question about 'Jungle Juice'.

Without a doubt my answer to the Jungle Juice question is the most popular post on the page and the email I received was as follows:

Hi Paul you came to my school today cheers for that. I have seen and known people to use JJ's (Jungle Juice, I think it's a type of popper which was a big gay drug, that's all I know about it) at quite a few parties more than any other drug besides alcohol. I was just wondering what's the deal with them. We haven't received as much drug ed on them as the other drugs. I don't know if it's because it isn't as dangerous or it's just more common due to us not being as educated on them.

For those of you who don't know, 'Jungle Juice' is one of the brand or product names for a group of drugs known as 'nitrites'. Known as 'poppers' to many in the past the most widely used nitrite was 'amyl', but most of the products available today belong to the alkyl nitrite family. It comes as a liquid, with users inhaling the vapour from a small bottle. Most probably best known as a 'gay drug' (as the young man suggested) with gay men, particularly in the 70s and 80s, it was used to enhance sex or to make the lights and music seem more intense when dancing in nightclubs.

I have to admit that when I received the original question I was a bit shocked - I hadn't really heard of the use of amyl or poppers for some time. You occasionally hear something about the drug when a sex shop is raided and bottles of these products are seized and the owners prosecuted, but in all my time speaking at schools I had never come across students admitting to using them or asking a question about them. Since I posted my answer I have received many responses from young people, usually asking for more information, others simply thanking me. What I have done with all of these responses is asked for a little more information from them as to what they know about the use of Jungle Juice and the like amongst their social group ... the results have been surprising as it certainly seems as though the use of poppers amongst young Australians is on the rise, particularly at teen parties where alcohol is present.

As far as I am aware, there is little, if any, information on the prevalence of poppers amongst adult Australians, let alone young people. So should we be worried about this trend, if indeed use is increasing amongst this group? There are two concerns I have with how the young people I have had contact with say they and their friends are using these drugs:
  • they know nothing about what they are doing - there are many of these products around and they are usually sold online or in specialty shops (usually sex shops) as room deodorisers, leather cleaners or the like. When many of these young people were first exposed to them, they were handed the bottle and told to take a sniff and they did so without question. They knew nothing about what they were inhaling and didn't even think about asking until after the experience. Many of the young people who contacted me after reading my blog entry said that they were doing some research 'after the event' because they had got such a splitting headache after using the product they were worried about what damage they may have done!
  • the vast majority of them are using poppers together with alcohol - most reported that the reason their friends were using the product was that it intensified the effect of alcohol. They were usually introduced to it when they were already pretty drunk and inhaling 'Jungle Juice' gave them a bigger high. As far as I am aware, this is a new trend and is potentially very dangerous. Taking one drug is risky, when you combine two or more drugs together you may well intensify the experience but you also greatly increase the risk of things going wrong. I have been unable to find specific research on the risks associated with this combination but many websites clearly state not to use alcohol and poppers together often highlighting the risk of possible unconsciousness.
As I said in my original post, most people do not continue to use nitrite products regularly mainly because of the unpleasant after-effect. Headaches the morning after are often reported, particularly if the drug is used regularly through the night. Most of the young people I have had contact with reported that their friends see these products as a bit of harmless fun. The 'buzz' is quite short and most of them have not seen any major problems with their use amongst their social group (although one girl did report her friend passing out after inhaling the drug, and many did talk about the headaches they and their friends experienced the next day). The truth is, however, that they can be very dangerous substances if people are not totally aware of what they are doing ...

Is this the greatest problem we face as far as young people and drug use is concerned? Most probably not, but it does illustrate to me that there are things going on that do not necessarily get picked up by conventional research and sometimes we only ever find out about these practices when something goes terribly wrong.