This morning I was invited onto BBC Radio Stoke to discuss Monkey Dust, part of the phenomena of what are called New Psychoactive Substances or what you may have known as Legal Highs. These were collectively outlawed in 2016 but continue to cause very real problems within some areas of the UK.
Although the name might be new, the drug itself – 3′,4′-Methylenedioxy-α-pyrrolidinohexiophenone (or MDPHP for short) was originally developed in the 1960’s. It’s a stimulant related to amphetamines, similar to speed and ecstasy.
Although almost unheard of in many towns and cities across the UK, it’s sudden accessibility and low-price has made it the drug of choice within some communities of Stoke-on-Trent, with Staffordshire police linking it to a series of crimes and, in some cases, fatal accidents.
But what feels new and, listening to the emotional testimonies told on the radio this morning, terrifying to people living in Stoke-on-Trent, is in many ways an older and even more depressing story.
Industrial towns and cities such as Stoke, with their proud heritage of pots, steel, and coal have in a single generation become some of the most deprived places in Britain. With deprivation comes broader social challenges. High unemployment, a lack of identity, low ambition, a rise in mental health problems, crime – all in the face of diminishing local services.
In to this storm comes a ‘new’ drug, at rock-bottom prices. The result is exactly what Stoke-on-Trent is experiencing right now.
Stemming the access to drugs through the police may be a short-term fix, but it can’t ever be a long-term solution. For this, we must address the causes of drug-taking. The solutions come from the most traditional of places. Families, schools and communities.
Families are still the foundation of most young people’s lives. They are fundamental in the development of values, they create parameters for ambition and aspiration and they offer love and support in times of crisis. But parents find talking about drugs bloody hard. They don’t feel they know enough and often don’t know how to approach what can be a highly sensitive and challenging subject. It is on the Government and organisations like us to develop the information, knowledge and skills parents need to have open and honest conversations about drugs with their children. Not once they’ve already started using, but in the months and years before.
But parents can’t do everything, and schools also have a vital role to play in this area. I find it shocking that almost half of young people only receive drug education within school once a year or less. This must change.
Every child should be given high quality, evidence-based drugs education regularly throughout their school life. Education that gives them not just the knowledge of what specific drugs might do and the potential consequences of taking them, but also develops the skills and self-confidence to know what to do in those challenging moments – perhaps in the moment when they are offered drugs for the first time, or when one of their friends is taking them.
We must also recognise that some communities will need extra support, often over sustained periods of time. Too often, if this arrives at all, it is in the form of a top-down ‘task-force’, flying in with ready-made solutions. And with little or no regard for the people they are trying to help. If communities like Stoke-on-Trent are to face-down the threat of illicit drugs and regain the sense of pride that used to be palpable within the city, then we must start to empower the people who live there. This means working from the grass-roots up, giving people a real voice in what happens in their communities and then the tools and resources in order to implement change for themselves.
Families, schools and communities – perhaps it is fitting an old problem can only be fixed with the oldest, most traditional of solutions.
Boris Pomroy is Chief Executive of Mentor – The UK’s leading drug and alcohol prevention charity. Through our work with children and young people (and those that care for them) we help them build the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to make positive choices even in the most challenging situations.
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