Celebrity drug use: What impact does it have on young people?

The Voice judge Joel Madden hit the headlines today with the news that NSW police had raided his room at the Star Casino after a cleaner had reported finding cannabis. The fact that the singer was not charged, as NSW law permits authorities to issue a simple caution to anyone found with less than 15 grams of cannabis, has also added fuel to the fire. Not surprisingly the tabloid press has gone into a frenzy over the story ... why was he not charged? Is it because of his celebrity status? Is Channel 9 going to allow him to appear on the Grand Final of The Voice (really - in the scheme of the world is any of this really that important?)? Has he apologised for his behaviour? Was his response (via Twitter of course) appropriate?
It goes on and on and to be quite honest I don't think most people care very much but having been at a school all day I have to say that this type of story does have an effect - the students were buzzing about it and I can imagine that it will cause some problems for some parents. How do you discuss the fact that a famous person was caught with an illegal drug and nothing really appears to have happened to him? If the drug is illegal aren't there consequences for getting caught with it - isn't that what we tell young people?
For the record, according to The Australian newspaper Madden released the following statement about the event "Sunday while I was at work, a hotel employee found a small amount of marijuana in my hotel room. The police were called and responded. Sydney is my adopted home and I appreciate the way the NSW police handled the situation. They have informed me there will be no charges. I hope this didn't cause too much drama for everyone."

In recent times there have been more and more celebrities who have either been caught using drugs or who have decided to write a 'tell-all' autobiography and spill the beans about their past drug use. For those who have willingly decided to share their past drug experiences, often for large amounts of money, they usually tell about the 'horrors' of the days they used drugs and the downward spiral that they found themselves in once they began. For those who get caught in compromising situations with drugs, there are usually heartfelt apologies for their behaviour and increasingly bizarre explanations for the choices they have made.

The media has also become increasingly interested in celebrity drug use, often directly asking people questions about whether they have ever experimented with substances. Even politicians have not escaped this trend, particularly in regards to cannabis.

The major problem is the message that these admissions send to young people. Although many would imagine that stories of famous people using drugs and experiencing a range of problems would discourage teenagers from going down the same path, in fact, in many cases just the opposite happens. You would think that hearing rock stars like Keith Richards talking about his drug use and then taking a look at him would be enough to put anyone off ever touching illicit substances. Unfortunately the only message that some young people pick up is that these celebrities have 'made it through to the other side' and continue to lead very glamorous and successful lives.

When you look at the messages that we give young people about drugs they are usually negative, warning about the potential risks associated with their use. Drugs destroy lives – people who use them lose their jobs, their families and are very unhealthy. This just doesn’t match up to what they see when they see a story on the latest rock star telling all on a TV chat show, or a famous sportsman who has been caught doing the 'wrong thing'. Even if they did have a bad time there for a while, they certainly don’t look as though they have suffered too much at the moment.

Mixed messages are extremely dangerous when it comes to providing drug information to young people. They learn when a consistent message is given to them and unfortunately celebrity drug use, particularly the way it is represented in the media, often contradicts everything they are taught by everyone else.

This is why it is incredibly important that we don't present drug information in a 'black and white' way. There are no 'definites' when it comes to the effects any drug will have on a person. Each drug will have a different effect every time it is used and there is no way of knowing what that effect will be.

When we talk to young people we need to make sure that we talk about the range of effects that a drug can cause, not just the possibility of death. There are physical, psychological and most importantly, a range of social effects that can arise as a result of using alcohol and other drugs. In some cases, the use of drugs may not result in any major physical effects that anyone can see, but the mental health may be immense. In other cases, the physical impacts of long-term drug may be extremely obvious.

The social impacts of drug use are not discussed often enough but are very real and can have devastating effects. When it comes to sportsmen, for example, the use of illicit drugs can lead to a change in how others in the community regard them. A footballer who is found to be using a drug like ecstasy can have his reputation affected for the rest of his life. He could win every award possible in his future career in the sport but I guarantee he will always be known as 'the footballer who took ecstasy'. The impact on his family and friends can also be immense and is rarely talked about.

When it comes to Joel Madden is this event going to change his life in any major way? Most probably not. You can guarantee, however, that everytime he comes to Australia the topic will come up and as he said today, this is something he did not want splashed all over the front pages of the daily papers ... the social impact of being caught with cannabis on this popular musician will not be great but he did have to front up to a news conference today to explain his actions (something I'm sure he didn't enjoy!) and he was kicked out of his hotel - there was an effect. It may not have been life changing but it was there!

Celebrity drug use does cause significant problems for educators and increasingly parents, who are struggling to work out they handle questions about this new phenomenon. Incredibly successful people (who are also usually beautiful, thin and extremely rich!) being caught or admitting to drug use, with little or no signs of any problems, challenge the messages we are trying to deliver. That is why we have to get the message right.

Making sure the information is balanced, accurate and credible is crucial. Acknowledging that not everyone is going to experience all of the same problems will enable us to explain why it would seem to appear that some people appear to get by unscathed. At the same time, no matter who you are, there are problems – some you may not be able to observe by watching the nightly news, but they are there.


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