Publication Detail

Midford, R., McBride, N. and Munro, G. (1998). Harm reduction in school drug education: developing an Australian approach. Drug and Alcohol Review, 17, pp. 319-328. [RJ285]

In recent years the amount of school based drug education has steadily increased in most Western countries, including Australia. In deciding how to best undertake such education in Australia, the National Drug Strategy (NDS) is the logical first point of reference. It has the ability to provide a unifying, coherent sense of direction and context. In theory, specific approaches can then be guided by research evidence, which identifies those interventions or intervention components most likely to produce the desired change. In practice this has proven difficult, because of the paradigm clash between the harm reduction aim of the NDS the abstinence outcomes sought by most drug education research.

It nevertheless remains important to assess the utility of drug education programs in terms of effectiveness. In this way there is some criteria to objectively differentiate between those programs that may simply be well known and those that achieve desired results. This may seem common sense, but experience is that a great deal of money earmarked for drug education is spent on aggressively marketing programs that have either not been evaluated, or have been shown to be ineffective, rather than implementing proven programs.

Although harm reduction has been the fundamental concept guiding the Australian Drug Strategy for over ten years, its widespread, formalised application to school drug education is relatively new. One of the major deterrents to adoption at a school level is a flawed or incomplete understanding of the concept among some school community members. At the core of unease about harm reduction is the perception that such an approach condones, even encourages, drug use among the student population. This makes it particularly difficult to gain acceptance for harm reduction as the basis for illicit drug education and development has suffered accordingly.

There are clearly a number of difficulties that need to be resolved with regard to drug education in Australia. However, the available evidence suggests that Australian students will be better served if school programs fit coherently within a broader national approach, are tailored to meet needs identified by school community stakeholders and are assessed against objective criteria. It seems clear that harm reduction has to be an integral part of any school drug education approach that meaningfully attempts satisfy these standards.

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