Sunday, 3 July 2011

Is a zero tolerance policy on drugs always a good thing?

This week I spoke to a friend who had received a letter from her son's school informing her that a lad of 13 had been expelled that week for testing positive for cannabis. We both received this news with heavy hearts wondering about the boy and family in question and whether a zero tolerance policy on drugs is always a good thing?

I am a parent and I obviously want my children to study hard, do well and sidestep the distractions that not only prevent academic excellence but also the completion of a full and rewarding childhood. At present my kids are 15, 13 and 11. But as a woman of the world, I also know that the only way they will be able to navigate through life is not just to avoid problems but find ways to manage them. On the one hand I don't want them to have to reject offers of drugs while on their way to class, but I also want them to know that should they ever make a bad decision, which we all do at some point in our lives, those who love and respect them will help them move on from that mistake in a way that will enhance their maturity and not feed any juvenile sense of being singled out or rejected.

We don't know from the letter if this was the boy's first offence, although it does allude to the schools "policy of zero tolerance". Some may think this a good thing but I worry what will become of him. It is my experience that practically every decision made at 13 is a bad one and we should all be allowed to come back from our first attempts to break into the adult world, especially if they go so disastrously wrong. I discussed this with a leading social entrepreneur and friend whose daughter, I knew had also been expelled from school for a drugs offence and she confirmed the untold damage that had been done and the long years it had taken the girl, a wonderful young woman, to come back from the stigma and subsequent sense of absolute failure. I know of another family whose son, an outstanding student, was also expelled for drug possession even though the drugs turned out to be oregano.

I do not know anyone whose life is untouched by drugs or their awful effect. So I wonder at the logic of creating the impression that you can create a drug-free environment, especially when it is populated by young people. I don't envy the task of schools that have to be seen to encourage dependency-free students in a world beset by offers and temptation. But is there something between being seen as soft and retaining compassion? Something that encourages discussion, debate and education about drugs, free from the scaremongering that only alienates young people? Kids need to know about cannabis induced schizophrenia, and that your first 'e' can be and, tragically is for some, their last. I know and love two families horrendously touched by both those tragic outcomes. But we also need to talk to teenagers about why people turn to drugs including alcohol, about the pressures of adult life, and encourage them to choose role models who have overcome hardships and not those who profess to lead blameless lives.

I went to a very strict convent school where wearing brown rather than regulation white socks in the summer was considered a punishable offence. I was therefore aghast and greatly relieved when, having been caught smoking at the age of 15 under the ubiquitous fire escape, I was not expelled. In fact the nuns made it their business to promote my obviously retarded maturity by a series of responsibilities culminating in being made prefect of the very year where I had transgressed. This somewhat enlightened plan helped me go on to a not too shabby academic career but I wonder what would have been the outcome if they had not given me a second chance?


  1. Another champagne socialist getting their knickers in a twist about drugs.
    It's illegal, even for adults, so get your head around it (unlike smoking and consensual sex which aren't, so 'early' experimentation is a different issue).

    I'm amazed you don't know anyone untouched by drugs - maybe it's the work you do (everyone in the liberal pot-smoking third sector?) or the life you lead (those hippy/druggy surfing dudes?), or the area you live (neighbours having the regular Friday night 'chill pill' or a quick snort?) or maybe the statement is not quite true but merely a reflection of the waffle you write ("yes, of course I understand the social issues of the day. Now pass me my 3rd glass of chardonnay").

    Your suggestion that role models can only be those who have 'overcome hardships' merely fuels this apologist agenda (often fuelled more by a sense of personal feelings of guilt than by anything else) - can a role model not be someone who has taken care to heed society's advice, avoid the pitfalls, do the right thing by themselves and others, and still made it good? Apparently not in your book.
    But then some in the third sector revel in a bit of suffering don't you?

  2. It might be waffle but at least I stand by what I write by not putting it out there from a position of anonymity

  3. Dear Anonymous

    You obviously don't get out much if you haven't met a family untouched by drugs. Or watch television? Or even listen to The Archers? Naivety is cute in children, but come on.

  4. Allison,
    Shame you choose not to come back with anything other than commenting on my 'anonymity' (some of us just prefer it that way). Just call me John if it makes you feel better.

    Poor reading skills are cute in children, but come on... (Allison claims that EVERYONE she knows is "touched by drugs or their awful effect". By all means make an assumption about what I might claim but here's a clue - it wouldn't be everyone and it wouldn't be no-one. Or maybe try reading the post and my comment).

  5. Also getting his knickers in a twist about drugs, well known heart-bleeding liberal, Pat Robertson:

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