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‘Tough on Drugs’ is inherently flawed

By Kathryn Daley - posted Monday, 10 September 2007

In my university bathroom the government’s national “Tough on Drugs” strategy has funded advertising to warn against the harms of using ice. The advertisement depicts a young woman with unsightly abscesses on her arms and face apparently caused by the effects of substance use.

More of this latest campaign includes a television advertisement playing childlike voice-overs while running visuals of amoral adolescents selling their body; fighting with Mum; rummaging through a purse; and the most shocking of all, the closure of a body bag. Ideally these images are illuminating the innocence one loses upon entry into the world of substance use and all so succinctly illustrated in one advertisement: albeit inaccurately.

Do not confuse my contention; I am not suggesting that drug use is not harmful. There are many negative effects of taking drugs, but those which are the most prevalent and detrimental are virtually ignored by the current strategy. Psycho-social effects such as depression and peer group issues are common, but instead we are exposed to the uncommon extremities. The images presented in this political crusade are out of touch and unrealistic.


A lack of self worth does not stem from drug use - drug use stems from a lack of self worth. Political approaches to illicit drugs must target the root causes as opposed to the symptoms. We live in a society which seeks to find imperfection. Newspapers rarely run favourable articles about the younger generation. For the most part, the focus is on their apparent binge drinking, promiscuity, violence and school failure.

I remember as a child, I expected high school to be a time where my friends fell pregnant, developed eating disorders and drug problems, had their drinks spiked, were date-raped and ultimately attempted suicide. This stemmed from feature articles in magazines and papers persistently addressing these issues. The dramatic nature and high crime rates of Summer Bay, Erinsborough and Mount Thomas only perpetuated these common fallacies.

When media do offer us insight into the successes of our teens, they are framed in such a way that makes these young people look unusual for doing something well. These stories make the papers because their success is so unexpected that it is therefore newsworthy.

We are always looking for signs of “at risk” adolescents. Prevention campaigns must begin to look at the kids who don’t use drugs to gain better insight into why it is that some do. The issues that affect the self-worth of adolescents are not uniquely tragic in independence, but their potential long term effects most certainly are.

The inability to read, being bullied at school, relationship endings, perceived failures, lack of ambition, inadequate employment and unhappy living arrangements are so standard that the seriousness of their effects is often overlooked.

“Tough on Drugs” campaigns portray such inaccurate images that they can cause more harm than they prevent. The perpetuation of the drug user as the “other” - a different species to you and I - is marginalising those who are most in need. If we continue to construct drug users as the root cause of societal ills rather than societal ills being the root cause of drug use, then we are turning a blind eye to some important issues.


The current approach to illicit drugs addresses no real issues. With a federal election looming the Howard Government needs to justify why they put more focus on zero-tolerance as opposed to addressing the reasons why young people would abuse substances so excessively.

I do not want this to be confused with a counter argument of why one should not postulate a stance against drugs or why one shouldn’t apply zero tolerance: however, campaigns which ignore prevention and policies which enforce punishment must justify themselves rather than simply proffer rebuttal of their opponent.

I have no doubt that huge sums of money have been allocated to this crusade, but if the aim is prevention this lacks any nous. Scare-mongering and propaganda are an inept way to go about either education or change; rather, such an approach pushes an issue behind closed doors which only further forces it into the hands of criminals.

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About the Author

Kathryn Daley is an undergraduate student in a degree at RMIT University to which she mistakenly enrolled. However she very much looks forward to completing this to compensate for her high school failure. Her interests are education (and she is aware of the irony), substance use, dance, and working with adolescents, particularly in the aforementioned areas.

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