UNESCO experience in relation to the problems of drug use by young people the secretariat of UNESCO


UNESCO activities
What do educators propose?


Pages: 47 to 56
Creation Date: 1981/01/01

UNESCO experience in relation to the problems of drug use by young people the secretariat of UNESCO

By the secretariat of UNESCO


This paper is a synthesis of the activities of UNESCO in the field of drug abuse prevention. It highlights the views and opinions expressed at various meetings sponsored by UNESCO and shows how UNESCO regards some of the policy issues concerning the prevention of drug abuse.


The use of licit or illicit drugs is above all a symptom of various problems. It usually represents an attempt by an individual to respond to a need, desire, pain, questioning, pressure, or some other psychological, social or economic stimulus.

Obviously, the smoking of cannabis, the use of tranquillizers or stimulants, the drinking of alcohol - briefly, the consumption of a drug whose use, if heavy, frequent, habitual or even compulsive, entails a risk - is neither the only response nor the one chosen by most people. As Dr. Helen Nowlis has said, drug use is a form of behaviour which, like any other form of behaviour, would not persist unless it fulfilled a certain need on the part of the individual [ 1] .

To speak in general of "the young" is to refer to a vast group indeed, considering that throughout the world, persons between the ages of 15 and 20 years account for 8.5 per cent of the population of the developed countries and 10.9 per cent of the population of the developing countries.

Youth is neither a social nor an economic category, and - as has been noted - it does not appear that vocational status or even particular age brackets constitute a basis for groups for which specific attitudes are typical [ 2] . Still, it may be that the fact of one's being young has less to do with actual biological age than with society's attitude towards a segment of the population whose shared behaviour patterns are linked to the status accorded them, i.e., to the attitude of adults. Obviously, the latter, too, do not represent a homogeneous group and, depending on the circumstances, are sub-divided into parents, teachers, employers etc. In different socio-cultural settings, youth may be regarded as a category in need of discipline or even bullying or, on the contrary, one which is to be envied, since in certain countries there is evidence both of an extension of adolescence, going hand in hand with the lengthening of schooling, and of an effort by parents to prolong their own adolescence [ 3] .

Thus, the influence of different cultures is important. Cultural patterns are changing today in many countries; social and family structures are evolving. Urbanization, a phenomenon in evidence in almost every country in the world, is frequently producing a greater isolation of the young. Regardless of whether they have entered urban life alone or with their families, young people are generally far less well integrated into the community than is the case in rural areas.

The changing status, role, and importance of young people in the community affect all forms of behaviour and not merely the use of drugs. As Dr. Nowlis pointed out at a UNESCO meeting at Lisbon in 1980, "Social and behavioural science research, whether on drug abuse, alcohol abuse, juvenile delinquency, suicide, depression or other physically and socially destructive behaviours, has repeatedly reported a variety of correlates, none of which is either necessary or sufficient to be labelled as a cause" [ 4] .

While it is true that drugs are frequently used by young people and adults for the same reasons, it is also true that for young people, who have not always developed the reflexes to enable them to cope with particular situations, some problems may occur in a more acute form. The difficulties experienced by young people are sometimes connected with the period of adolescence. Adults in general, including parents and even teachers, have little knowledge of adolescent psychology, and tend in a number of countries to attribute to drug use a variety of modes of behaviour and signs given, for example, in standard lists intended for use in spotting drug users. Moreover, the young are more "visible" and generally lack economic means that would permit them to use licit or illicit drugs without attracting attention. Furthermore, they are more limited in the choice of ways of responding to needs, desires or pain than adults, and are less a part of the structures that can at the same time afford both protection and constraint. This is one of the reasons for the establishment of peer groups, which give the young a sense of belonging and help them to define their own personalities.

UNESCO activities

As early as the first meeting of UNESCO, which was held in Paris in December 1972 [ 3] , the organization invited experts to study the problems of drug use by young people, in particular in the industrialized countries. The participants recommended that a meeting should be devoted to the problems of young people, with the participants to be drawn from community workers and young educators with no previous experience in international meetings. This event was organized in 1973 and brought together persons who, in one form or another, were working with young people most commonly referred to as "drop-outs". This group of specialists was supplemented by a smaller number of participants who, although working with the young, were not principally concerned with drug abuse. The involvement of persons not directly concerned with the specific problems of treatment and social re-integration was intended to make possible the most detailed examination of the problems which, while affecting society as a whole and young people in particular, explain at least in part the spread of drug use among the young. The seminar, at Sèvres [ 5] , focused its attention on a situation in some industrialized countries during a particular period, where drug use was a widespread expression of a radical questioning of social values. The meeting emphasized the danger of the policy, then in effect in certain countries, of confining drug users to either prisons or psychiatric hospitals, thus further deepening the gulf separating them from the adult population, accentuating the dropping-out process and compounding the drug consumption problem.

UNESCO responded to the seminar, which was of great importance to the continuation of the organization's programmes, by arranging, with the financial assistance of the United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC), for a number of studies, meetings and activities in accordance with the suggestions put forward by the participants. For example, a meeting arranged for representatives of rural and urban communities responsible for drug addicts and former drug addicts [ 6] provided a forum for comparing the methods used by four countries in an attempt to solve the problems confronting young drug users. One study [ 7] dealt with the future prospects of former drug users in the post-treatment stage in an effort to evaluate the degree to which they remained drop-outs or regained a place in society. Taking into account the diversity of situations in the four countries in which surveys were carried out, it can be seen how necessary it is that there should be structures to receive patients after medical, psychological or social treatment and how inadequate in number and resources these structures usually are. The inclusion of a specially designed educational programme and of vocational training beginning at the treatment stage greatly increases the chance of achieving a lasting success. Another study [ 8] inquired into the youth press, whether aimed exclusively at a young readership or in fact read widely by the age groups in question. This study revealed that the viewpoint of a number of publications written by and for the young was far less dramatic and "sensationalist" than that of the wide-circulation press, and that these publications reflected a concern for many other problems to which young people frequently attach greater importance: health, the environment etc. By way of extending the surveys carried out to other regions of the world, two studies regarding the attitudes of young people towards drug use were prepared for the Philippines [ 9] and Thailand [ 10] . These showed that while most of the young people surveyed did not regard drugs favourably, they often failed to draw the same distinction as adults between licit and illicit drugs.

The other meetings organized between 1975 and 1980 by UNESCO or with its support did not specifically highlight the young, but viewed drug use by the young in a more general context. Nevertheless, within this perspective the participants at these different meetings consistently recommended that steps be taken to involve young people in a study of drug-use situations in order to offer them positive alternatives and take into account their desires and ambitions.

This was the case not only for meetings held for Latin America [ 11] , a number of African countries [ 12] and Asian countries [ 13] , but also for several meetings organized for the industrialized countries at the subregional level, including the German-speaking countries [ 14] , the Nordic countries [ 15] and the French-speaking industrialized countries [ 2] .

Moreover, viewing the problem in the context of the population as a whole has made possible a better understanding of the problem confronting young people. During the first meeting at which UNESCO called upon experts to examine the role of education in the social re-integration of former drug users, emphasis was also placed on the need to make available, in particular to the young, the supplements to education which they required in order to play an active role in society. The participants recommended that young people and the representatives of youth movements should be invited to take part in future meetings on the same topic. In fact, these movements have always been invited to send observers to UNESCO meetings.

What do educators propose?

Summing up some of the proposals and recommendations which have either been put forward at the meetings of experts or which follow from the pilot activities that have been undertaken in various countries, it is clear, first of all, that it is essential to work through both school and out of school educational structures. In fact, the last regional meeting organized by UNESCO, at Lisbon in 1980, dealt with the importance of co-ordinating programmes in these two sectors [ 4] .

As Dr. Helen Nowlis, speaking at that meeting, observed, "No institution or setting that regularly has young people under its control for days, or years, can possibly avoid facilitating or inhibiting learning, whether it is cognitive, emotional or social. Major among these are family, school and workplace" [ 4] .

This co-operation between formal and informal education is essential if all young people are to be reached. In some developing countries only 10 per cent of the school-age population actually attend school; this proportion rises to as high as 100 per cent in other developing countries and in the industrialized countries. Even where it is compulsory, school attendance varies in duration from four to about 12 years. Thus, in general, most members of this age group escape the influence of the school, whose effect on the young is in any event limited to those few hours a day and that part of the year during which their teachers are in contact with them.

The young have always been a target of criticism by their elders, a criticism which is all the more severe as the critics, having themselves once been young, assume they know what youth represents, whereas in fact they have most often forgotten. While making much of the importance of the young as the key to the future, older people know that they will ultimately have to surrender their place to them, and so tend to break off communication. It is in recognition of this fact that the participants at the Lisbon meeting stressed the point that: "People can help to solve problems associated with the use of drugs by promoting better youth-adult communication; a feeling among young people that they have a control over their own lives and a purpose in living; an acceptance by adults of alternative life-styles; development of value structures in which immediate gratification is not at the top of the list" [ 4] .

From the outset of its work in this area, UNESCO has been at pains to caution against identifying youth and drug abuse, since one of the consequences of this identification might be to portray drug use as a behaviour pattern expected of young people, to which they might conform. As long ago as 1972, the Director-General of UNESCO, then the Assistant Director-General for Education, made the point that the organization did not "wish either to consider drug abuse as a problem specific to youth or to reduce the important and serious problems which in some countries affect youth - the largest part of humanity - to a problem of drug abuse" [ 3] .

In order to prevent this discrimination and to establish effective communications in responding to the articulated and unarticulated questionings and objections of the young, they must be involved in the workings of society. The alternative, as noted at the Sèvres meeting and as is already occurring in a number of industrialized countries, is a situation of permanent conflict in which the rejectionist attitudes of the one group merely aggravate the indignation of the other [ 8] .

It is in the light of these facts that the participants in the meeting held at La Mothe, in 1977, called on the authorities to seek out the views of the young and to enlist their support for group activities that would enable them to participate in community life (reporting, surveys, mutual aid projects, consultations etc.) [ 2] . It was also pointed out that the proper approach was not to oppose specific behaviour patterns - with adults professing their uninvolvement in drug consumption whereas, in fact, they too had their drugs - but to bring to light the similarities in the motives which caused the different age groups to resort to drugs, so as to prevent a ghetto-like isolation of young people. This attitude was shared by the experts from the various regions. For example, the participants in the meeting of Asian countries at Penang, Malaysia, in 1977, expressed the view that: "The community should provide youth with facilities for positive and rewarding alternatives such as ... sports and recreational activities" [ 13] .

Although existing structures are best used to bring about this integration of the young into society, for the most part non-governmental youth organizations serve only a minority of young people, except where they are quasi-official organizations, such as the Scout movement in some countries, or are affiliated with a political organization. Frequently, youth organizations have been initially reluctant to become involved in action on drug use, although the participants in the UNESCO meetings have expressed the wish that these organizations should play an active role in prevention and social re-integration. The experts at the Penang meeting considered that "youth organizations should be encouraged to organize programmes to prevent problems related to the use of drugs among their peers. They should also be prepared to accept former drug users as regular members and provide them with the opportunity to participate fully in the work of their organizations" [ 13] .

Just as out-of-school education is an important factor in this effort, so too the use of the media is a problem to which specialists should turn their attention. The study of the youth press reveals the limitations of the printed word, but too little work has so far been done on the influence of the radio, television, film and posters, for example, which have the disadvantage of being one-way channels of communication. UNESCO has devoted only one meeting, in 1973, to an evaluation of the impact of the media [ 16] . This meeting, among other things, stressed the importance of partners in communication being credible. Most often, what is involved is information rather than education, and attention has repeatedly been called to the danger of information which does not have educational support. As pointed out by the participants at the Lisbon meeting: "Many specialists in education and youth services now recognize that the informational approach may be self-defeating. In their view, information merely for the sake of information can lead to more harm than benefit, as it may arouse curiosity or even justify drug use in the eyes of the young by presenting it as antisocial and as a form of contestation against the older generation and its values" [ 4] .

Studies of the youth scene are necessary in order to identify the partners in communication who enjoy the greatest confidence of young people, whether in or out of school. For example, as part of a pilot project launched with UNESCO assistance in the Argentine schools, groups of pupils were trained to reply to various questions asked by their school-mates and to help them find solutions to their problems, whether drug related or not. Moreover, as pointed out by the youth representatives at the 1973 Sèvres meeting, in order to enjoy credibility with target groups and make progress towards the goal of genuine prevention, programmes must be designed neither with a view to immediate results nor within the extremely narrow context of illegal drug use [ 5] .

On the part of those involved in education or information, this credibility requires total honesty, which bars recourse to methods of intimidation and the exclusive singling out of arguments turning on the dangers of drug use. The level of information must naturally be tailored to the age and education of the recipient, which means the educators must be thoroughly familiar with their public. Similarly, this requirement of intellectual honesty means the avoidance of over-simplifications because, as has been noted, in an area as complex as that of drug use and related problems, care must be taken not to give fast, easy and false answers.

All the UNESCO meetings have stressed the importance of setting specific objectives for drug-education programmes. It has also been pointed out that these objectives must be realistic, and in this connection the general trend appears to be towards aiming at something less than complete abstinence from all drug consumption and the elimination of all experimentation. What is more, the motives behind the consumption of drugs are sometimes the same as those encouraged by society; for example, the experts from Asian countries noted that "curiosity", which has been a term conveniently used to disguise the deeply rooted problems which may impel young people towards drugs, is a natural instinct which can be channelled towards positive ends [ 17] . Similarly, if the purpose of preventive education is to teach the young to renounce all freedom, there is little likelihood that educators will succeed in arousing their pupils' enthusiasm.

The participants in the Sèvres meeting noted that, "Applied indiscriminately to school and para-school institutions, prevention programmes are inevitably the subject of unfavourable prejudice on the part of young people, who primarily perceive their restrictive and disciplinary aspects" [ 5] . Thus, what is needed is rather education for the assumption of responsibility and the exercise of choice. To this end, as indeed for the development of the personality in general: "We do have a wealth of resources at our disposal. We have strategies to facilitate social and personal development in terms of increased self-esteem, greater cognitive, personal and social skills, reduced hopelessness and sense of frustration, improved relations with parents and peers. But none of these strategies is easy because each requires changes that are always difficult - changes in people and in institutions" [ 4] .

For the implementation of these methods of preventive education, there is a consensus in recognizing the need for educator training. As pointed out at the Lisbon meeting: "There is an urgent need for training and preparation of professional and non-professional persons working with or having access to young people - for example, teachers, out-of-school educators, youth leaders and workers, doctors and para-medical personnel, public health officers, social workers, and law enforcement personnel. Training should be included in both the initial and the in-service education of these groups. Initial training should be sufficient to enable students to understand the basic pharmacology of drugs ... among young people. It follows that those responsible for initial training must themselves be adequately prepared for their task. Thus, the training of trainers becomes a priority" [ 4] .

This training must contribute to the development of the following:

"An understanding of drugs, patterns and functions of drug use, problems associated with drug use, and the drug culture;

"An understanding of young people, and how they learn and develop, their needs and expectations;

"An understanding of social institutions as organizations and their function as arenas for growth and development;

"Skills in interpersonal communication, problem-solving and conflict resolution;

"A sensitivity to alternative cultures, styles of life and social concepts and mores;

"Experience in interdisciplinary team building and working together toward agreed upon goals;

"Skills in programme planning and management;

"A basic understanding of and acquaintance with a variety of strategies for prevention from which they select those judged most relevant to their problem and for which they receive special training" [ 4] .

Alongside its work in the area of preventive education, UNESCO is also concerned with the problems of social re-integration. In the case of the young, the question has been asked whether it is a matter of "re-integration" or simply "integration", considering that in certain instances the individuals concerned have been drop-outs from an early age and have been incapable of being integrated within their community. This point was stressed at the Sèvres meeting, where attention was called to the difference, in the industrialized countries, between the fact of dropping out through choice or consent and exclusion, which is always passively suffered. Regarding this point, the participants at that meeting expressed the view that the aim should not be "to rehabilitate deviants... and at the same time wipe out their experience. In point of fact, it must be recognized that it is impossible for anyone who has taken hard drugs to become afterwards what he would have been if he had not had the experience" [ 5] . A number of specialists have observed that the harm caused to a person by drugs may be more the result of society's reaction to that person's behaviour than of the behaviour itself. The same view was expressed by the participants at the Hong Kong meeting on social re-integration when they pointed out that the social dysfunction of a drug user may occur not only as a result of the harm done to him by taking drugs but also of the unfavourable reaction of society towards him as a result of his habit [ 17] . They took the view, therefore, that the term "social re-integration" of former drug users should be understood to mean the re-integration of "formerly dysfunctional drug users". They went on to define a socially integrated person as one who meets the following criteria:

"(i) Does not use drugs to the point where it interferes or is likely to interfere with his social function;

"(ii) Is involved in productive activity earning income, doing household work, furthering his education, expressing creativity or developing his personal potentials;

"(iii) Is law abiding;

"(iv) Has satisfactory inter-personal relations" [ 17] .

The target groups that must be called upon to ensure the effectiveness of the educational measures adopted in this area are primarily the policy-makers: politicians and people in authority; treatment personnel; family and peer groups; local communities; school authorities, religious teachers etc.; employers; the judiciary; and mass media personnel. As for the young themselves, where they have been drug users, they must also take part in the preparation, implementation and evaluation of the programmes on their behalf.


It may be seen from all the programmes which UNESCO has supported, the meetings which it has convened and the studies which it has sponsored that for action on drug-use problems to be successful, it must concentrate not on the substances themselves, the use of which depends largely on the availability of a particular drug in a particular milieu at a particular time, but on the problems facing both young people and adults. On the other hand, it would be regrettable to regard people as a commodity and young people as having value only for the society to which they belong. It is essential that preventive education, like education for social re-integration, should not lose sight of the fact that the human being is an end and not a means, and that if UNESCO - and this holds for the United Nations and the other specialized agencies as well - should take action in this field, it is because of the suffering and problems caused by drug abuse, which hinder the free exercise of human rights. As pointed out as early as 1972 by the Paris meeting, the principal concern of educators, whether they be parents, teachers, youth leaders or the authors of books, pamphlets or films, must be for the physical and mental health and the happiness of the young people and adults who are in their charge or whom they are trying to reach [ 3] . It has been said that happiness is a new concept in today's world and that we must discover what adults have to offer the young. The view was expressed at Sèvres that if the current situation remained as it was in the majority of the industrialized countries, there was a risk of: "The development of a problem far less controllable than the use of drugs: that of violence, gratuitous and spontaneous, which represents a new threshold in the mechanism of social exclusion and in respect of which it is difficult to find any trace of an alternative life-style in the sense in which participants proposed it. This violence, already appreciable in many industrialized countries, is an opposition without a cause. It is the negation of the cultural creativity which some are attempting to achieve in communities" [ 5] .

Educational programmes must, therefore, be continued and developed. The fact is that: "Young people are using drugs, including alcohol, not as many of them as indiscriminate reports from visible areas and schools would tend to show, but enough of them to suggest that it may be necessary to ask some searching questions about youth, about drug use, about society and its response both to youth and to drug use, and about the adequacy of institutions. Indeed, such an inquiry may be one of the most positive steps that can be taken as a result of the concern caused by the use of drugs in present society" [ 1] .



Helen Nowlis, Drugs Demystified (Paris, UNESCO Press, 1975).


Meeting on Education Concerning Problems Relating to Drug Use for European and North American Countries that are either French-speaking or use French as an Official Language, La Mothe, France, 1977 (UNESCO, ED/MD/48).


Bulletin on Narcotics, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4-1981


Meeting of Experts on Education in More-Developed Countries to Prevent Drug Abuse, Paris, 1972 (UNESCO, ED/MD/26).


Meeting of Experts on the Co-ordination of School and Out-of-School Education concerning the Problems Associated with the Use of Drugs, Lisbon, 1980 (UNESCO, ED/MD/62).


Seminar on Youth and the Use of Drugs in Industrialized Countries, Sèvres, France, 1973 (UNESCO, ED/MD/34).


The Role of Urban and Rural Community Centres in the Education and Treatment of Drug Users and Ex-drug Users , Report of the meeting held in 1975 at the Levant Centre at Lausanne, Switzerland (UNESCO, EPDAY/7), April 1977.


Avenues for Former Drug Users After Treatment (UNESCO, EPDAY/6), January 1977.


Drugs as Seen by the Youth Press (UNESCO, EPDAY/4), June 1976.


A Study of Youth and the Use of Drugs in the Philippines , 1977.


A Survey of the Attitudes of Thai Youth Towards Drugs and the Assessment of the Effectiveness of Prevention and Education Methods , 1977.


Regional Meeting on Drug Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, Lima, Peru, 1976 (UNESCO, ED/MD/42).


Regional Meeting on Education Concerning Problems Connected with the Use of Drugs in Six African Countries, Lomé, Togo, 1976 (UNESCO, ED/MD/44).


Meeting on Education Concerning Problems Connected with the Use of Drugs in Ten Asian Countries, Penang, Malaysia, 1977 (UNESCO, ED/MD/51).


Drogenerziehung durch Lehrer und Eltern, UNESCO Seminar, Cologne, Federal Republic of Germany, 1975.


Seminar for Nordic Countries on Adult Education and Education Concerning the Problems Associated with the Use of Drugs, Eskilstuna, Sweden, 1977 (UNESCO, EPDAN/1).


Meeting of Specialists on Methods for Evaluating the Impact of the Mass Media on Action to Combat Drug Abuse, Paris, 1973 (UNESCO, COM/MD/25).


Meeting on the Role of Education in the Social Reintegration of Former Drug Users, Hong Kong, 1980 (UNESCO, ED/MD/60).