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Principles of juvenile drug use prevention

Published 4 April 2006.

Illegal drugs are nowadays used in various ways, whether we look at it from the viewpoint of the problems they create, the reasons behind the use or the drug use cultures. It is evident that the use of drugs has not only increased but has also become more versatile. This is why prevention work, too, should become more versatile than it is now. The drug situation and the problems relating to drugs are so varied that there are no standard solutions that could be applied to all target groups.

The committee charting the use of drugs by adolescents handed its report to minister Osmo Soininvaara in October 2000 (committee report 2000:3, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health). In addition to the need to diversify prevention work practices, open discussions questioning prejudices and a continuous search for new information all form an integral part of drug and alcohol prevention work. This kind of prevention work can only be carried out in a societal climate of acceptance, which strives to understand, tolerate differences and diversity, encourages, asks, discusses and supports, but does not moralise. We must be able to accept conflict and differing points of view.

Illegal substances vary in dangerousness, ways of use, prevalence and risks relating to use

The committee felt that prevention work should be differentiated according to target groups in primary, secondary and tertiary prevention. Primary prevention would be targeted to large population groups with low levels of drug experience. Juvenile drug use is prevented in a comprehensive way and drugs are not handled separately from other intoxicants. It is particularly important to support the social skills, self-control and self-discipline of children and the young. When drug information is given, it should include information on the different risks related to various substances and on the different levels of risks related to experimentation. Secondary prevention focuses on risk groups. The drug specific nature of prevention increases when the target group are adolescents who have already experimented with drugs and risk social exclusion, or problem users. In these cases, the risks relating to drug use increase. The young drug users must be given information on the illegality, associated risks of drug use and on harm reduction so that they do not move from experimenting to a more long-term or harmful pattern of drug use. Tertiary prevention refers mainly to the care and rehabilitation of problem users.

No separate bulletins, focus on the societal viewpoint

Prevention work should support the voluntary peer group activities of children and the young as well as the utilisation of their own resources. Prevention work should also include the societal point of view. The young would for example be given information about drugs as a global and societal issue, showing how drug use is linked to global crime, inequality and the commercial, entertainment-oriented ways of spending leisure time. Prevention work should pay attention to the ways in which the use of intoxicants acquire meanings as a part of the juvenile partying cultures. Separate, moralising “drug prevention bulletins” are not recommended. Also, the legality and effects of drug tests used to expose drug users involve problems that should be thoroughly thought over before decisions are made regarding the issue.

Parents, teachers and youth workers are the adults most directly responsible for the lives of children and the young. It is their job to create forms of co-operation based on mutual trust and equality for dealing with issues related to the lives of children and the young. The voluntary leisure activities of the young should be supported for example by providing facilities (e.g. at schools and educational institutes) for their hobbies more readily than is currently done. Leisure activities should be offered as a continuation of the school day. Educational and youth work professionals should be involved in the hobbies of especially those adolescents who are in at risk groups.

The professional skills of those working with drug-related issues should be improved. Versatile courses on drug issues, current information on various drugs and other intoxicants should become a part of the basic and further training of social and health care professionals, educational and youth authorities, the police and other control authorities.

Low-threshold treatment services and co-operation between authorities

The greatest challenges of prevention work relate to the prevention of problem use. This means that there should be low-threshold treatment services, centres that operate outside office hours, access for patients to use services anonymously etc. The prevention of contagious diseases must be made more efficient by providing needle exchange programmes, health advice and substitution therapies for opioid addicts.

Waiving of measures should be applied more systematically when the offender is a user, especially when waiving may prevent the development of social exclusion of a young person. Adolescents with intoxicant problems who have been subjected to police measures should immediately be offered social and health care services so that the problem can be tackled early on. Local forms of co-operation must be developed in order to achieve this. Adolescents must be supported and treated with respect. Being labelled ‘a problem kid’ accelerates the development of social exclusion.

Use of two models: accumulation of problems and youth culture orientation

The committee finds that when adolescents do become drugs users, two roads to drug use can be distinguished: the accumulation of problems and youth culture. In the first case, adolescents come from bad social conditions and have a low threshold for becoming drug users. The use of intoxicants is part of a culture learned by one’s parents and the environmental surroundings. Use of drugs is just one of many problems.

The youth culture model refers to a conscious maximising of pleasure through the use of drugs, especially at parties. Typically these users have relatively good social backgrounds and actively follow the international trends of youth culture. Linking drugs to international youth cultures has come about largely through the music industry and other pop culture aspects.

Tuukka Tammi
Research manager
A-Clinic Foundation
Secretary to the Adolescent drug use prevention committee

More on adolescents’ drug use: Drug use as part of culture