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Why don't the ASSAD Surveys' results always match our personal experience?

The 2011 Australian Secondary School Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey was released today and for the next few years these figures will be used by a wide variety of people to describe what is going on amongst high school students in terms of alcohol and other drug use. I use the ASSAD data all the time - it is a great piece of research that provides some really useful information - but the response I get from many people I speak to, whether it be teachers, parents or those who work with young people in other sectors, is that the results simply don't match their experience.

For the purposes of this post I'll be looking at just the illicit drug use, we'll leave the alcohol, tobacco and over-the-counter information for another day ...

Once again, the data shows quite clearly that the majority of Australian secondary school students do not use illicit drugs. Here are just a few of the key findings:
in terms of lifetime drug use, rates were either stable or decreasing for all illi…

'Sheesha' smoking: Why should we be worried?

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In the week that the world-first initiative of the plain packaging of cigarettes has finally been introduced in Australia, we should be incredibly proud of our achievements in the tobacco area. We have one of the lowest rates of daily smoking in the world and data that we have available from the latest 2011 ASSAD Survey indicates that we continue to see an upward trend in the number of Australian high school students who have never smoked cigarettes. That said, I am seeing a very worrying trend across the country that may be removing some of the existing barriers around smoking - the increasing popularity of 'sheesha' smoking.

About six months ago I was at a school in Sydney's eastern suburbs when a Year 10 student asked me about the harms associated with smoking a 'hubbly bubbly'. He had gone to a friend's 15th birthday and the parents of the birthday boy had given their son and his friends a sheesha to use at the party! I was absolutely floored - I couldn'…

The adolescent brain and alcohol

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Since the 1990s we have learnt a great deal about the developing brain. It was once believed that this complex organ finished developing around the age of 15 years, we now know it takes much longer and that during the dynamic changes that occur during adolescence drinking alcohol can seriously damage long and short-term growth processes.

Before we look at alcohol's effects on the developing brain - let's first discuss what is different about a teenage mind.

We all know that adolescence can be a troubled time but now we are beginning to understand why this is the case - and it's not just all about raging hormones and puberty! Certain parts of the brain are underdeveloped, particularly the prefrontal cortex (the part that deals with judgement, decision-making, planning and impulse control) and when teens make decisions they tend to use an alternative section - the amygdala (the emotional part of their brain). This results in a decrease in reasoned thinking and an increase …

What are 'bath salts'?

There are so many urban myths that exist to do with drugs and drug culture. It is difficult to work out how and where many of them originated, whereas others can be pinpointed exactly, as is the case with so-called 'bath salts'.

What is repeatedly mentioned in media stories to do with the new range of 'legal highs' or 'synthetics' is the story of a US man who reportedly stripped a homeless man naked and then attempted to chew his face off whilst under the influence of 'bath salts'. Witnesses described the man as a "zombie" and when the police finally arrived on the scene and intervened they shot and killed him. The attack was caught on video and, not surprisingly, the media had a field day. When the story broke there had been no toxicology conducted so no-one really knew what had caused this bizarre attack but that didn't stop the police or media from making wild claims. Nicknamed the 'Miami Zombie', Rudy Eugene became the poster …

What hope do we really have?

It has been really interesting to see media coverage of the Melbourne Cup this year. Images of drunk racegoers falling to the ground with alcohol in their hands even managed to make front page news in the UK. It seems that no matter how you dress it up - getting drunk is not attractive - at last we're acknowledging that!

Then you find 'articles' like the one I was sent from Melinda Tankard-Reist yesterday that makes you realize just how far we have to go. Melinda does an amazing job highlighting a range of issues, particularly around the sexualisation of our young women. The piece she sent me came from Zoo Weekly magazine and was contained in an article called 'Truths that are Lies' challenging a number of so-called 'myths' including 'Alcohol kills brain cells'. Their response to this statement was as follows:

"Here's a good reason to go out, get slaughtered and urinate on a
policeman: even industrial quantities of booze won't destroy …

The 'Schoolies' Week' phenomenon

It's that time of year that many parents dread - the lead-up to 'Schoolies' Week' (or 'Leavers' Week' as it is known in WA). Last week Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr issued a warning to Schoolies travelling overseas that if they break the law consular staff can't "rescue them if they are arrested". It was a great move by the Australian Government in my opinion but I doubt very much if it will have any great effect on those young people who choose to go overseas for Schoolies' celebrations.

You only need to take a look at a story that ran on Channel Ten's 'The Project' in response to the DFA's warning to realize what we are up against. If you go to the following link the story on Schoolies travelling overseas begins at 2min.20sec. The interview with the two young women who are planning to travel to Bali is quite disturbing. When asked why they chose to go overseas they make it clear that it is to avoid the laws around al…

LSD - did it ever go away?

With the tragic 'tasering' death of the young Brazilian in Sydney earlier this year,  hallucinogen use is an issue that is now being discussed. Described by police at the coronial inquest into his death as being "in an LSD-induced ''psychotic state''', one article was quoted as saying that the drug had left the young man "paranoid, restless, and possessing "superhuman strength" as he tried to avoid arrest".

Whether or not any drug can give someone "superhuman strength" is highly debatable! Can someone affected by LSD be difficult to deal with, aggressive and violent? Without doubt, but "superhuman", most probably not ... so what is the story around LSD, what is it and what are the risks, particularly for the young?

Amazingly some commentators are surprised to find out that LSD even exists anymore, with many believing that it disappeared in the 60s, along with the 'flower power' generation. That couldn'…

The minefield that is alcohol and other drugs ...

There is no easy way of dealing with the topic of alcohol and other drugs. Over the years I have been called a 'promoter of drugs' (once actually being accused of contributing to the 'killing of young people' with the messages I was promoting in schools!), as well as being an 'anti-drug crusader' (a term I particularly dislike - it sounds like I should be wearing a cape and flying through the sky ...) ...it really is extremely difficult to get the balance right - you simply can't please everyone!
A book has recently been published in the UK by Professor David Nutt who has found himself right in the middle of the debate a number of times in the past year or two. Once the leading advisor to the UK Government on issues around drugs, he was sacked for, amongst other things, comparing the harms of taking ecstasy to that of horse riding! The book, Drugs: Without the Hot Air, has been described as written in "straightforward language" and "explores t…

Parental supply of alcohol and adolescent drinking

A great paper has just been published by Australian researchers that attempts to sort out whether there is an association between between parental supply of alcohol and risky drinking.

The authors tested two hypotheses - firstly, that minors whose parents supply them with alcohol per se have increased odds of risky drinking, and secondly, where supply occurs for drinking without parental supervision, the odds of risky drinking are greater again.

They found that 'risky drinking' was common within their sample and increased sharply by school year. Their first hypothesis was not supported, however students whose parents supplied them with alcohol for consumption without parental supervision had four times the odds of risky drinking.

What does this mean for parents? Is there a simple message here? To be honest the study has a whole pile of limitations but it does seem to suggest that the practice of giving your child a couple of drinks to take to a party is most probably not appr…

Ecstasy deaths and warnings

I was contacted by a Brisbane journalist on Friday regarding an ecstasy-related death that occured last weekend. He had already interviewed a young woman who had been at the house party where the young man had died and she she too had experienced severe effects and found herself hospitalised. There was also a great deal of conversation on social media sites and web-based chat rooms about a possible 'bad batch' of ecstasy.

The journalist was keen for me to provide some information on a substance known as PMA - a toxic form of amphetamine that has been found in ecstasy pills across the world than has led to a number of deaths. He also asked me to give my opinion on why no warnings had been issued by either health or law enforcement authorities even though someone had died after taking what was obviously a 'bad pill'.

In all my years of working with the media the one story that ended up causing me the most grief was when I made comment on an ecstasy-related death and it w…

Are our kids really that bad?

Here is an edited version of an Opinion Piece I wrote for ABC Online way back in January 2008.
If you believe the media you would quite honestly believe that we now have the ‘worst group of young people in the history of young people’. Current affairs programs and radio shock jocks love to tell tales of young people out of control, that we have higher rates of drug use than ever before and that drinking rates are through the roof.
I have been in an extremely privileged position over the past decade or so. Almost every week over that time I have been asked to speak to school communities right across the country about alcohol and other drug issues. I get to speak to a range of people about this subject and I continue to feel extremely positive about young Australians. So many of them are doing wonderful things, have made great choices and have amazing futures in front of them. When do we ever talk about them and celebrate the good things about our children?
Now that’s not to say that we …

Are Australians really the world's highest users of illicit drugs?

The annual release of the UN World Drug Report always creates a flurry of media interest in this country (I would imagine the rest of the world doesn't really take much interest in the contents!) mainly due to Australians and New Zealanders usually being awarded the dubious title of "the world's biggest drug users." This year was no exception!

According to the report, annual use of all drugs, except heroin, in our two countries "remain much higher than the global average". The latest available data suggests that New Zealand has the highest prevalence of the use of cannabis, with Australia not too far behind, and our use of ecstasy, although falling in recent years, continues to be the highest in the world.We are certainly seeing increasing availability of cocaine across the country and rates of use appear to be rising accordingly.

So what is the story? Are we actually the world's largest consumers of drugs and how is this report put together?

When you l…

Spirits and young people

One young Australian aged between 14-17 years old dies every weekend due to alcohol. That figure astounds me each time I say it to a group of students but it truly is beginning to surprise me that we don't see far more deaths than that due to the increasing use of spirits by the very young. Recently I met a 16 year old girl at a school who wanted to thank me for the talk I had given her class the previous year. Only a couple of weeks after I had visited her school she had gone to a party and consumed almost a bottle of vodka with a couple of friends. She remembers little of the night apart from waking up in the hospital early the next morning with a drip in her arm and her parents sitting next to her, both of them in tears. Apparently she had lost consciousness and her friends had used some of the information I had given them in my talk to establish that she needed urgent medical assistance.

She was an amazing young woman. She had been through an unbelievably terrifying experience b…

Parents, teenage parties and alcohol

Last weekend NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell made the front page of the Sun Herald on the issue of parents, parties and teenage binge drinking. The story begins by stating that "parents who supply alcohol to other people's children face up to 12 months jail" as part of the changes being pushed by the Premier.

When you actually read the story it really says no such thing - no new laws have been made, just the ordering of a parliamentary inquiry into changes to the law to potentially prevent minors from drinking in homes, parks and halls. Call me just a little bit cynical but I wonder what the O'Farrell government didn't want on the front page last Sunday that led them to this big announcement of 'not much at all'! I remember many years ago when the then Premier of NSW, Bob Carr announced a trial of medical cannabis was to be rolled out, knowing full well that his government couldn't do anything without the Federal Government's support, guaranteeing…

New drugs and what to do with them

A couple of weeks ago the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) released a report that reported on the large number of new drugs that had been detected in the European Union in 2011. According to the report, a total of 49 new psychoactive substances were officially notified for the first time in 2011. This represents the largest number of substances ever reported in a single year, almost one every week, up from 41 substances reported in 2010 and 24 in 2009.

Many of these substances come under two main headings - 'synthetic cannabinoids' and 'synthetic cathinones'. Synthetic cannabinoids are the products often referred to in the Australia media as 'synthetic cannabis', with the best known of these being 'Kronic'. The cathinones are often described as being similar in effect to stimulant drugs like amphetamine, ecstasy and cocaine. The most popular of these is a substance called 'mephedrone'.

There was a time when subs…

Finding your child is using drugs

Welcome to the first of many (hopefully!) posts on my new blog - 'Doing Drugs with Paul Dillon'. The title comes from the radio show I did for many years on the national youth radio station - Triple J. Looking back on it, it was a pretty brave thing for them to do and I very much doubt whether we would get away with some of the things that we spoke about way back then .... That said, I hope that readers of the blog find its content useful, and that it provides me an outlet to let off steam occasionally!

It's going to take me a while to get going so if you happen to start reading this early in the piece and are disappointed that there isn't a lot here, I hope you will return later and take another look. Over time I'll try and post items like Opinion Pieces that I have written for newspapers and websites (I've put a couple up today), as well as make commentary on news stories of the day (particularly if they really get me angry) and highlight any new research tha…

Alcohol and young people

Here is an Opinion Piece I was asked to put together for the Newcastle Herald in February 2010 ....

Alcohol has always played a role in some young people’s lives. No matter what your age, if you cast your mind back to your final years of high school there were surely at least a small group of your classmates who were well known for their partying habits! Are we to believe today’s headlines that things are so dramatically different now?

Firstly, let me make something completely clear – we really have no evidence to indicate that we have more young people drinking than ever before. However, what we do appear to have is a hardcore group of risky drinkers who are drinking in a far more risky way than ever before. As already said, this group of risky drinkers have always been there – it’s just now they’re starting younger, drinking more, more often, and possibly most frighteningly their drink of choice is spirits, particularly vodka. So if they are such a small group why should w…

Alcohol and parenting

Here is an Opinion Piece that I wrote in February 2011 for Melinda Tankard-Reist's website:

I often tell the story of my visit to a small country town waiting to give a presentation to a group of parents. I was waiting in a hotel room watching a news program and a story about young people and alcohol use was just about to begin. The piece started with a statistic, as they usually do, with the newsreader stating that “one out of every 10 young people binge drink”. As you can imagine the story that followed was fairly alarming and I remember sitting on the bed with my head in my hands thinking what chance do our teenagers really have? That figure sounds pretty scary for parents and it is – drinking to excess is dangerous, particularly when you are dealing with the developing brain, but why must we always be pushing out a negative message when it comes to this issue? Wouldn’t it have been much more powerful and positive to have started the piece by saying that nine out of ten haven’t …