Prevention, the word and meaning, comes from the Latin “praevenire” which means “to come before”. In other words, to act pre-the event – not during it or after it. Any action later than pre-the event is not prevention, it is repair. And both are required.   When it comes to funding, Prevention is the Cinderella service, and reasons why could include that Treatment has more workers with a resulting vigour; Treatment is easier to count, pleasing accountant-oriented funders; Prevention is (falsely) depicted as inhibiting Human Rights, and libertarian campaigners have always had deeper pockets that Prevention ever had.


Early responses to the drug problem were characterised by being reactive rather than proactive, often with a legal or enforcement flavour.

There was also a tendency to focus on transmission of knowledge, sometimes coupled with a challenging of the users’ attitudes – unintended consequences could follow, for example:

  • if you give knowledge to a user you may produce a knowledgeable user, and
  • if you challenge a user’s attitude you may produce a knowledgeable user with an attitude.

In due course a more complete model was developed using the simple synonym – KAB, meaning you should address a mixture of Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviour. (And focus on encouraging positive behaviour, rather than punishment).

Libertarians spotted the educational arena as fertile ground for their campaigns; their speculative allegation that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ was failing was the launchpad for harm reduction (HR1) – this was later augmented by inclusion of human rights (HR2). I witnessed all this being promoted vigorously at the 2009 UNGASS/CND conference in Vienna – we were emphasising ‘Whole Health’ as a goal, but throughout the proceedings there was an apparently innocuous and almost irresistible request from ACLU delegates that human rights should be included in all clauses. It wasn’t evident at this moment that they would later insist that using drugs was itself a “human right”, which therefore meant that prevention was, in effect, a breach of human rights. This activism was bankrolled by George Soros’ Open Society.

You can explore people’s thinking on this every day, in the Google Alerts, but remember what H.L.Mencken had to say: “For every complex problem there is a simple solution … and it doesn’t work”.

Exemplary practice can be observed in several initiatives. There are too many to cover them all, but here are some indicative examples and source materials:

DFAF – Drug Free America Foundation – www.dfaf.org – internationally active, establishing conferences in Europe and the Americas. Publishes a learned journal, and holds an enormous library.

NFIA – National Families In Action – Atlanta USA – www.nationalfamilies.org – countless years of detailed research and practice. Many learned papers. They have just published a very useful technical paper called ‘The MJ File’ – requires reading.

CADCA  – www.cadca.org – Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America – until recently under direction of Major General Arthur Dean, US Army retired. CADCA is well-resourced; in 2016 alone it trained over 8,000 youth.

A very useful publication by NIDA/CSAP www.drugabuse.gov (Center for Substance Abuse Prevention) is ‘Preventing Drug Abuse’ – a slim volume, its first edition in 1997, revised in 2003 … about due for an update, one might say!

DARE – www.dare.org –  has suffered attacks in recent years but has survived, to the extent that it is signing new client organisations at the rate of about 200 a year even now.

DWI – Drug Watch International –  www.drugwatch.org a long-standing forumof experts in America and abroad. Membership by invitation only.

Straight – peer-led youth rehab service, now closed. Featured in the movie ‘Not My Kid’ starring George Segal and Stockard Channing.  Straight came in for criticism from the liberal left, and eventually closed, but not for this reason. I asked Bill Oliver, Chief Executive for many years, what caused the collapse of Straight. He told me “We were very good drug workers but lousy accountants”. A salutory comment!

SAM – Smart Approaches to Marijuana – www.sam.org . One of the most potent bodies in recent years, in the legalisation battle zone. Under the direction of Kevin  Sabet, a former policy adviser in the  US drug czar’s office. Senior staffers include former Congressman Patrick Kennedy Their approach is soundly based on scientific evidence.

And NDPA – National Drug Prevention Alliance – based in Slough, near Heathrow, and almost 30 years old. NDPA has provided support and training for parents, young people, drugs professionals and teachers. It has provided counselling and referral for users, and has done a large amount of work in the broadcast and print media,. It runs two websites – one for drugs professionals www.drugprevent.org.uk and one – more accessible in its presentation –  for parents – www.pinpoints.org.uk The websites include thousands of technical papers as well as other advisory publications. The websites are regularly visited internationally, several hundred thousand visits per year, and readers include our own Home Office.


Perhaps the earliest example was almost 40 years ago, in the late 1980s. Increased drug use sparked large numbers of parents to press academics into action, with the most memorable campaign being ‘Just Say No’ – under Ronald Regan’s wife Nancy. It was ridiculed by the left, but the campaign was very much more than a slogan, included detailed trainings for parents and youth, plus media activism, and the hard evidence is that it reduced prevalence by more than 60% – 11 million fewer users. Any other health-related campaign today would kill for such a result.

Perhaps the best example of this in recent years has been around the use of tobacco. Historically tobacco was used freely everywhere. Even doctors said it was good for you – it would soothe your throat, for example. Advertising sold it vigorously. Such protests as were made, were largely ignored. And if any people suggested that smoking had made them ill, the rest of us felt that that was their own fault and nothing to do with the us – they were getting what they deserved

Then, one day, the US Surgeon General announced that tobacco smoking by one person could give other persons cancer (through passive smoking). This was a game-changing announcement; we could no longer ignore what these drug users were doing – now it was affecting all of us. Anti-smoking articles and adverts appeared in the media; doctors advised strongly against it, schools told their pupils to avoid it, offices prohibited smoking in the premises, causing those who still were dependent on cigarettes to huddle in unpleasant external doorways, and the newly emerging Health and Safety brigade put in their six-pennorth. In due course the government reacted, producing new and influential legislation, banning smoking in many places. Before long the culture changed markedly, and in consequence so did the prevalence.

But if you want a bang up-to-date success, story you need look no further than Iceland. Comparing latest European figures with a couple of decades ago, teen drinkers have dropped from 42% to 5%, cannabis use has dropped from 17% to 7%, and tobacco smoking from 23% to 3%. The emphasis is on providing stimulating activities for youth, and on schooling parents in now to be more engaged with their families. Countries are following the Icelandic model, and research shows Risk factors and Protective Factors are pretty much the same everywhere.

There are localised examples of how to get ahead of the game – for example, one effective program was run in New York – called ‘Fixing Broken Windows’ the approach was to keep the streets and buildings clean and tidy – it reduced drug abuse and other social aspects.

In society as a whole, what promises the best results? In essence, the most effective  strategy will come from changing the culture.

Balanced prevention policy and strategy

I have yet to find a better definition what we should do than that written by a leading expert in the prevention field, based in Arizona – William Lofquist:

“We need to get beyond the notion that prevention is stopping something happening, to a more positive approach which creates conditions which promote the well-being of people”.

Lofquist found the importance of treating youth as resources, rather than objects or recipients of project work. He also emphasised that it should engage the whole of society, not in some rigid formulaic way but in a fluid, proactive approach which is alive to changes in society and always works to stay ahead of the game.

An assembly of this co-ordinated strategy and policy might include the following:

Government Health Education Higher ed Youth peers Parents Religions Pharmacists Businesses Media Volunteers Sport Leisure Drugs services–  specify, resource, oversee, evaluate and improve –  address all health elements –  focus on health promoting approaches –  train teachers and youth workers in prevention –  develop and utilise their potential –  de-marginalise, train, resource, support –  spiritual lead, network, interface working –  more proactive, preventing, reducing harm –  health promoting environments. EAPs, RDTs –  educate and support editorial staff, no mixed messages –  realise their potential, utilise more widely –  health promoting environments, health image –  widen education and training. Explore expansion –  encourage plurality, with more emphasis on recovery

We can also learn much from the science of ‘Behaviour Modification’  – as practised by, inter all, Professor Brian Sheldon of the Royal Holloway University.

Constructive selfishness …

The tobacco example above describes what I mean by this expression. We should not shrink from recognising that selfishness is a powerful driving force across society. And since it is a powerful driving force, we should seek to drive it to our advantage.

We have yet to wake up to the potential of defining and communicating to society at large the various ways in which one person’s drug misuse adversely affects the rest of us.

Establishing readiness for prevention – CULTURAL CHANGE

What influences culture?

  • Peer group influence
  • Personal perceptions
  • Income versus cost of any action
  • Health issues
  • Moral structure
  • Spiritual structure
  • Family values
  • Attraction of risk-taking
  • Media
  • Mental state
  • Legislation
  • Economy – the well-off or the poor
  • Employment – job or no job

CSAP found in their comparison of practices that the best prevention results come through co-ordinated prevention efforts, offering multiple strategies, and providing multiple points of access.

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This is but a quick canter through the jungle of Prevention. There is much more to it, but I hope I have whetted your appetite – and you may even see the sense in building prevention into your work spectrum. (As co-operators rather than competitors with other agencies).

Don’t fear that prevention will reduce your treatment client base – as treatment workers, you are going to be in demand for a long time yet! Whilst some will be prevented from drug and alcohol abuse, and some will manage to cure themselves, most people need expert help.

We are, after all, working towards the same objective.  I once saw a cartoon in which a drug worker was asking a guru how to solve the drug problem. ‘Why do people use drugs?’ asked the guru. ‘To escape reality’ said the worker. ‘Then the solution is obvious’. Said the guru. ‘Improve reality’