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Drug Education: Preparing students for a world where drugs and alcohol exist

Finlay Dunseath

With the 2020 election just around the corner Kiwis will be asked to vote in the recreational cannabis referendum, which promises to be one of the most contentious issues in the election.

If the draft Cannabis Regulation and Control bill receives a yes vote, it will still have to go through parliament before it is passed into law. The proposed bill will bar people under the age of 20 from legally purchasing cannabis and will introduce harsh penalties for those who provide minors with the substance.

Despite these precautions, one of the key decisions the next government will have to make is how they approach drug education and harm prevention in schools.

Under the current school curriculum, most of students' drug education is provided through a short health focused segment in their second year of high school. However, Education experts and academic researchers are urging the government to fund a more progressive approach to harm prevention and education around the realities of drugs and alcohol.

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High School Classroom Environment Kristina D.C. Hoeppner

Samuel Andrews, harm reduction projects adviser for the NZ Drug Foundation, explains that the legalisation of recreational cannabis would enable educators to provide students with more information on the effects of cannabis use so that they can make more informed decisions later in life.

"Every young person makes a decision to use alcohol or drugs, most will choose to use alcohol and a lot will also decide to use cannabis." Andrews claims. 

"Prohibition has prevented adequate information from being provided to young people in New Zealand as well as all New Zealanders, around how to be safer in the short term. As well, prohibition has prevented the ability to seek help both within family and whānau as well as within the health system or within education," Andrews said.

Andrews highlights the Tūturu pilot program as an example of how education institutions can take a whole school approach to harm reduction and drug education. The program aims to look at schools as a cultural institution by fostering awareness of cultures, social norms and behaviour.

He explained that the NZ Drug Foundation are shifting their stance on drug education as research shows that the use of external educators and old school scare tactics is not effective in reducing harm or use. In place of these existing strategies, Tūturu endorses delivering information on drugs through trusted educators who students can have an open conversation with.

"If we want to do meaningful engagement with schools and prepare young people for a world where alcohol and drugs exist we need to look at the culture and this happens over a five year period."

Tūturu aims to prepare young people to live in a world where alcohol and drugs exist by providing a school environment which is more supportive, less punitive and implements evidence based approaches to drug and alcohol education

The program is a collaboration between the Ministries of Health and Education, the NZ Drug Foundation and community partners across the country. So far, the pilot has been trialed throughout 12 secondary schools nationwide and is being reviewed so that school's can implement it's learning modules in the most effective way.

The Tūturu pilot program explained

Vice President of the Secondary Principal's Association, Vaughan Couillault, admits that community-based approaches to education like the Tūturu pilot program generally work well but doesn't believe that one size fits all.

"The problem is for me that one size doesn't fit all, you can't just create a model and then upscale it to 400 secondary schools across the country because each community has different external partners, different needs in terms of what the community wants and values, different cultural and socioeconomic demographics." 

Couillault claims that in the current 'curriculum crush' that many high schools are facing, increasing the priority around drug education simply means that another part of the school curriculum will be diminished. Although Year 10 is the last year that compulsory subjects can be enforced, if students wish to further their education on the subject of health there are specific learning pathways that will expose them to more information, he explained.

He explained that reviewing drug education in schools is an issue of competing priorities with pressures on educators to incorporate more content on other social issues such as mental health, sexual health, physical wellbeing and more. When asked whether the drug education provided in the health subject of Year 9 & 10 does enough to enable students to make informed decisions Couillault conceded that 

"It would be great to implement more of the pro-social behaviours that we want people to engage in within a school setting but we simply don't have the learning time," he said. "Its not that its all we want to do, its all that we can do in that time frame if we still value the rights of people to choose their pathway academically in year 11,12 and 13."

Couillault, who is the principal of Papatoetoe High School, believes that if recreational cannabis is legalized it will be essential that schools collaborate with social agencies and community groups to address the issue of adolescent cannabis use. He believes that putting additional government funding towards these community groups would 'absolutely' help educators in managing the increasing expectations that are placed on high schools.

The New Zealand Health Survey shows an increasing prevalence of Kiwis who admit past-year cannabis use.

Dr. Reremoana Theodore is the Co-director of the National Centre for Lifecourse research and a co-investigator in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Study. 

Dr. Theodore believes that if the personal use of cannabis is legalized it will be important that schools educate young people on why the substance is regulated and age-restricted. Although she acknowledges that some young people are still likely to access cannabis, Theodore said that increasing education around the health impacts of cannabis will help the youth understand the importance of delaying usage.

"If we can do better when it comes to educating young people about the impacts of cannabis and what it might do to them if they use it early and regularly, then I think that enables young people to make decisions that aren’t necessarily just based on it being illegal but having some better information about the health impacts of early and regular use." she said.

The New Zealand Health Survey shows an almost 15 percent increase between 2011 and 2019 in the number of 15 to 24-year-olds who admit to using cannabis in the past year.

Lifecourse research has shown that frequent cannabis use in adolescence increases young people's risk of developing a psychotic disorder or psychotic symptoms. For example, The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Study found that people who used cannabis early in life had approximately double the risk of developing a psychotic disorder at the age of 26 in comparison to those who did not use cannabis.

Dr. Theodore believes that it's important to realize that these negative effects of cannabis use occur under prohibition and explains that regulation will break down barriers around drug education and access to addiction services. 

“The harms and health effects of cannabis occur whether it’s illegal or not” she said, "If cannabis use is treated as a health issue rather than a criminal issue it would mean that not just drug education but also addiction and mental health services would be easier to access due to the barriers of stigma."

Despite supporting drug education, Dr. Theodore concedes that if recreational cannabis receives a yes vote it will be important that researchers continue monitoring the rates of use in youth. She said Continuing these studies will allow researchers to track how legalisation affects New Zealand's youth and enable further regulations to be implemented if necessary.


Dr. Pauline Stewart PHD, educational and counselling psychologist, says that if we continue to do the same thing we're going to continue to get the same outcome in relation to alcohol and drugs.

'Every drug should be approached from a harm reduction model, what we've got now is clearly not working. We certainly believe at FDS that helping family members, building social capital around families and establishing connections with people who have challenges around alcohol or drug misuse is really important.'

In her private Psychology practice, Dr. Stewart noticed first hand the need to develop assistance for family members who were supporting people with alcohol or drug misuse. In response to this she founded a nationwide non-governmental organisation called 'Family Drug Support' to help family members breed coping and resilience to support their Whānau who struggle with drug misuse.

Dr. Stewart explained that the misuse of alcohol or other drugs is a learned behaviour and in order to unlearn such behaviours it is essential to have social capital around the individal, this includes support systems such as employment and family connections

"Unless you've got the family members around when you're assisting and helping people with alcohol or drug misuse it's of much less value just helping the person who is facing challenges."

She explains that FSD commissioned research alongside Research NZ showed that nearly 50% of people in New Zealand are impacted by the alcohol and other drug misuse of family members and close friends. This number rises to about 53-54% in 18-24 year olds.

"For any drugs at all, prohibition is a huge barrier because people will not come forward to get help and also family members because of concealed stigma they don't want to come forward either if there is legal implications.So, prohibition is a huge issue and very misunderstood."

Dr. Stewart advocates that community groups are vital in the efforts to address the harms of drug use, "Community groups are essential, schools have a very small role to play in the use of alcohol or drugs. What we're talking about is a societal issue, so society needs to deal with it."

She explains that there are plenty of small non-government organizations and charitable trusts that are doing important work in the field already. However, the problem is that the money generally stops at government level and the trickle down effect doesn't happen. Dr. Stewart firmly believes that community groups would be able to do more important work if they received additional funding. 

"Funding from any source is really important to address the harm that society experiences and I think that having good controlled systems where taxes can be gathered is clearly a better outcome then incarcerating many many people, some of whom are incarcerated for a very long time. The money could be much better spent on rehabilitation services."