Editorial Comment on British government’s New Media strategy for drugs. May 2003
NEW BRITISH MEDIA DRUG CAMPAIGN HAS SCHIZOID TENDENCIES
Late May saw the public launch, on satellite and terrestrial channels, of the British Government’s latest strategy concerning drug misuse. The strategy includes an array of TV and radio announcements, a new web page (
The most usual dictionary definition of the word ‘FRANK’ is “open, honest and direct, especially when dealing with unpalatable matters ” … but another definition – intriguingly – is the “stamping of an official mark on a communication”. Moreover, the original Franks were a people that controlled much of Western Europe for several centuries … the choice of name for this campaign might therefore achieve a certain resonance in Downing Street (as an ‘aspirational target’, anyway).
It would be quite wrong to be unremittingly carping about Frank; there are aspects which deserve commendation and encouragement. Paul Betts, father of the late Leah Betts, whose death from ecstasy sparked off a major media campaign, expressed himself encouraged by some of the content, and by the principle of ‘talking with’ rather than ‘talking at’ the young (not a new practice, but certainly a good one). At the same time any campaign which sets itself up as being ‘open, honest and direct’ must expect commentary upon it to be likewise. An overview, therefore, would conclude that there is a mix of the good and the bad; a mix of the sophisticated and the naive – and, above all, Frank seems to be suffering from schizophrenia when he contemplates his goals.
This last point is most evident when Frank addresses drugs other than his ‘betes noire’ (heroin and cocaine) – the strategy is said to dovetail with the overall drug strategy, which has, as one of its main aims, “… helping young people resist drug misuse in order to achieve their full potential in society”. The official press release for Frank backs this up by saying that “A key priority of the drugs strategy is to educate young people and prevent them becoming involved in drugs”. These are aims which would find favour with all but the most libertarian zealots. Sadly, the actual detail of what Frank will get up to is all but invisible in respect of prevention, and seems, more often than not, to be written in terms of fatalism about drug use and thereafter acceptance of drug-using behaviour. Much is made – especially in the adverts – of the assertion that “… as many as one in three people have taken drugs …” without clarifying that this figure is for any use at all throughout one’s lifetime, and the majority of these ‘users’ never do more than ‘dabble’ once or twice before giving up. Even for the higher use group which is young people, the number who use more than twice is as low as one in six, with the figures for regular or for problematic use being very much lower than this.
If Frank intends to be “honest and direct” about “preventing them becoming involved in drugs” then why does the campaign say it will “… focus on the most vulnerable young people … (and) … will focus on cocaine and heroin”? The answer seems to rest in some of the remarks from the rostrum, to professionals and to the Press, at their respective launches. Once again the assertion was made that cocaine and heroin do more harm to society than other drugs, an assertion based on a narrow, user-centric definition of ‘harm’ which ignores significant categories of damage such as intellectual, social and emotional impacts, and which scarcely touches on the damage to people other than the user. Yet again there came the mantra: “The Just Say No approach does not work” – leaving aside the factually contentious (and sometimes tendentious) nature of this claim, there was a noticeable absence of reference to the many other varieties of primary prevention, where the reduction in use that comes from such initiatives is well documented (a more cynical observer might conclude that the underlying agenda is to neuter all primary prevention). So, Just Say No is a no-no … and yet, referring to the fact sheet for the drug ecstasy, the unequivocal statement is made that “When you buy ecstasy you have no way of knowing what is in it, so the safest thing to take is nothing” – in other words, just say no.
The adverts, both TV and radio, will be found humorous by all but the most determinedly morose, and they have a fast-moving style which should appeal to young people – and to many of their parents. There is a debate to be had about underlying messages in the depictions, particularly of adults and of drug users, but this is for the future. Similarly, the language chosen for the fact sheets on specific drugs is simplified and boiled down in order to be more accessible to the lay reader, even though this risks people misconstruing what they perceive – and gives the more pedantic professionals something to get their teeth into. The risk of people picking up the wrong message is a key aspect – reservations have been expressed by several field workers. Picking up the wrong message is almost an Olympic sport amongst young people, and as one seasoned youth worker once observed “There’s nothing wrong with an adolescent, that reasoning with him won’t aggravate”.
Several professionals had things to say on this front. Alistair Lang, the (then) chief executive of D.A.R.E. UK (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) said “There is no harm in having information about drugs in the right places, but this sounds a bit like a ‘Which? Guide to mobile phones’. From the government you want to hear a categorical health warning, of the sort you get on cigarette packets, that drugs can harm – or even kill you”. Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Home Secretary, said it was “… highly questionable for taxpayers’ money to be spent on telling young people that Ecstasy gave them a buzz”.
Mail on Sunday senior columnist Peter Hitchens was trenchant in his criticisms of Frank; in his column on 1st June he urged parents to visit the website (
Home Office ‘drugs minister’ Bob Ainsworth claimed that “this is the first time the government has tried to reach out to parents and carers as well as children…” which will be viewed with surprise by those drug professionals whose shelves are sagging under the weight of previous government-sponsored material doing just that. Hazel Blears, Public Health minister, came in for some heavy media criticism when she said, “in many cases people do take drugs because it’s a pleasurable thing to do”. The outcry says more about the critics than about the issue; anyone who does not know that one of the primary motivations for drug abuse is pleasure needs to revisit their textbooks. Where the minister misfired was in not making it clear that pleasure from drugs up is artificial, short-lived, and ultimately empty experience, and therefore that the (legitimate) human pursuit of pleasure should be fulfilled via other routes – which a Public Health minister might be expected to not only be aware of, but to advocate. She compounded the felony by paraphrasing the attack on ‘Just Say No’ approaches, which makes one speculate whether her own ‘aspirational target’ is to render her post redundant! (Just say Go?).
Not all the critics of the Frank Campaign came from the prevention side of the field. Danny Kushlik, director of the ‘legalise everything’ Transform Drugs Policy Institute branded Frank a “wasted opportunity” because it offered no advice on ‘Harm Reduction’. He went on to emote “The campaign is crap. It focuses entirely on illegality. It looks like it’s been designed by some official at the Home Office” (hardly a breathtaking deduction). Even Release, the longtime cannabis legalisation campaigners, were unhappy; “Talk to Frank conjures up an image of a white older man” (Release has, for several years, itself been managed by a white older man…). Of all the liberalist groups, only DrugScope seemed content – less than surprising to those who can see DrugScope’s fingerprints all over this product.
The fact sheets are certainly written in easy-to-read language, including slang, but some of the statements are a cause for serious concern. Amphetamines receive the admonition: “too much, too often can make people depressed and paranoid” – the implication being that lesser consumption is of no concern. Regular users of cocaine or crack can, it is said, develop “a regular habit” (is there such a thing as a ‘irregular habit’?) – but there is no mention of cocaine or crack addiction. With Ecstasy, “some of those who died did so from heat stroke” – but what of the others? Although, with Ecstasy, the uncertainty of what you are being sold leads Frank to recommend that you avoid it, a similar concern about uncertainty as to what you’re sold when it comes to heroin is not accompanied by any similar recommendation to just say no.
As might be expected, the fact sheet on cannabis is the biggest disappointment; and it receives fire from both sides. The UKCIA (UK Cannabis Information Agency) is incensed by what it sees as avoidance of its version of the truth; understandably enough, given their faith in the weed. Prevention professionals have also expressed serious reservations, but on the basis of research rather than faith. The extraordinary increase in strength in recent years, with the consequent major increased risks of psychoses, is brushed aside by the statement: “Some types are very mild. Some are very strong.” There is a blunt and erroneous statement that “It is very unlikely that any one will become physically dependent on cannabis…” and this is reiterated later in the same fact sheet, albeit with psychological dependency acknowledged – yet in a phrasing that suggests this is somehow less of an issue – which any drug worker worth their salt will know is far from the case. Another misleading statement is that “some people use it for medical reasons – MS, glaucoma, (etc) …” – the more correct statement would have been “some people use it in the belief that it has medical benefit”; some people will see this statement as governmental acceptance of a position which – in respect of ‘raw’ (as-grown) cannabis – remains more likely to be scientifically rejected than accepted. Frank goes on to say “medicinal types of cannabis are being researched” – this is unforgiveably sloppy writing; it is extracts of cannabis which are being researched, and then only for ingestion by means excluding smoking; there is no suggestion in the research that smoking cannabis joints is on the research or government agenda. Once again this sloppiness gives credence where none is justified, and unjustified succour to lobbies who are quite capable of making up their own fantasies without the help of the government writers.
At the launch for drugs professionals, first up to introduce Frank was Cathy Hamlyn – Head of Sexual Health and Substance Abuse at the Department of Health. Referring to an increased spend by her department, up from £236 million to £296 million per year (which makes for interesting comparison with just £3 million per year for Frank. One wonders where all the rest is going). She gave the overall aim of Frank as “helping young people understand the risks and the sources of help” (no mention of prevention there) and to “give parents more confidence”. The target age range for Frank was stated as “young people from 11-21 years and for parents of 11 to 18 year-olds”; this is probably a rational age bracket for those receiving or reading the Frank materials, even though there is some incidence of drug abuse below this age.
Next to speak was Katie Aston of the Home Office, who gave an interesting slant on one goal, which she verbalized as “… to reduce use of class A drugs and to reduce the frequent use of illicit drugs” – presumably infrequent use of illicit drugs is OK by Frank. She went on to say that one expectation was that there would be “… a shift in attitudes on specific drugs”, and she gave the example of “modifying the perception of heroin use as being linked with failure”. Quite what the advantage would be, and for whom, in this kind of ‘rehabilitation’ in the characterization of heroin use, is unclear. Equally unsettling was the stated intention, of “… starting the process of destigmatisation of drug abuse”. One can see the advantage, within a therapeutic process (of counselling or treatment) of the client’s attitude not being clouded by such characterisations; but this is a world away from some general kind of normalisation across society, and with it the risk of suggesting an active acceptance of drug misuse. Home Office urgently needs to get its act together on these issues – assuming, charitably, that they have not already done so.
Also on the rostrum was Sarah Maclean, representing the Department for Education and Skills; she told the professionals that Frank will support schools (and young workers) through drug education advisers, and that this will involve the Drug Education Forum – not the best news for those drug educators who pursue a preventive approach; the DEF has long been dominated by a ‘harm reduction and personal choice’ model … it remains to be seen whether it changes its direction under its new chairman, Eric Carlin, who is UK chief executive of Mentor, the prevention body which has such diverse board members as HM the Queen of Sweden, and George Soros, as well as Lord Mancroft, a Tory peer with a penchant for relaxing drug laws.
A question about the absence of reference to gun crimes and turf wars, and there being only fleeting reference to crack cocaine, brought the response that Frank did not want to generate worry across the nation about specific drug problems which were more regionally concentrated. Questions about the absence of black people in the adverts threw the panel into a confusion of hand-wringing, with protestations that this was only the beginning, and that all ideas from the public and professions, for modifying the campaign will be entertained with enthusiasm. This remains to be seen.
Overall, then, there are things about Frank that are worthy of encouragement, but he has some worrying traits, and he seems to be facing in several directions when it comes to what he is trying to achieve; almost schizophrenic. Being all things to all men may seem a good strategy for a politician, but for a communicator with young people, parents and carers, Frank needs to be more than ‘open and non-judgemental’ – valuable though these values are. Young people can smell hypocrisy a mile off, and can tell when someone is pandering to them in an attempt to be ‘cool’ or to buy ‘cred’. Frank could usefully mature a little, pluck up his courage, and move beyond mere distribution of information – as a caring ‘older uncle’ might well do. Frank speaking about society’s goals does not have to be off-putting, nor does it have to stray into authoritarian mandates. If Frank can help the young and their parents understand – not only what drugs do, but also why it makes sense to avoid them – in the interest of other people, not just the user – then this would be a real leap forward … far beyond just saying ‘No’, and into a truly honest dialogue worth having, in the interests of all of us.