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Drugs awareness program shows the ugly side

Friday, April 3rd, 2009 Drugs awareness program shows the ugly side

A radical initiative is taking drug education out of the classroom and into the coroner’s court

At first glance, the photo album looks innocent enough. But when Sophie Tattersall peels back the plastic cover the horror of the images inside is reflected in her wide-eyed stare. As she flicks through the pictures, the 15-year-old’s distress deepens with each turn of the page. Looking down at the body of a young girl, discoloured and barely recognisable, she shakes her head and turns away before telling me: “It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen - that’s going to stay with me for ever.”

It’s little wonder. The pictures are stark, close-up shots showing the bloated, decomposing corpses of young drug users. They would be hard for anyone to see, let alone a teenage girl.

Taken from the files of Nigel Meadows, the Manchester Coroner, they document the ugly deaths of those who lived with drugs. Bodies are sprawled at strange angles, slumped across dirty mattresses or curled up among piles of rubbish. Most of the pictures are squalid and depressing. All are shocking. That is why Meadows considers them such an important weapon to highlight the reality of Britain’s drug problem.

In the city’s Coroner’s Court he deals with at least 100 drug-related deaths a year - “and that’s only the tip of the iceberg”, he says. Meadows is increasingly worried by what he describes as the normalisation of drug use in British culture. According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 2,640 drug-related deaths in England and Wales in 2007, a 3 per cent rise on the year before. Of those, 829 were linked to heroin or methadone use - up 16 per cent on 2006 - with cocaine use cited in 196 deaths; cocaine use has risen steadily since 1993. “This is the problem we face today,” Meadows says. “Drug education doesn’t seem to be working.”

With that in mind, Meadows, 49, is pioneering a new approach to drugs awareness in the city, one that he hopes could be used nationwide. He wants schoolchildren to witness the devastation drugs cause; to “educate and inform” by showing them what he sees every day, sparing none of the details. This is only the second time he has hosted a session here (he carried out a test run in Portsmouth) . He admits the administration involved means that it has been hard finding schools to take part - but he hopes that it will become a regular fixture.

Today, he is playing host to a group of 14 youngsters, all aged 15 and 16, who have come to view the pictures, sit in on an inquest and hear from parents who have lost children to drug-related deaths. As the pupils are finding out, it’s an emotionally charged approach and one that doesn’t fail to make an impression.

In a cavernous courtroom, in the city’s Civil Justice Centre, Meadows introduces the session by telling the pupils, all students from Newall Green High School, in Wythenshawe, about some of the deaths he has seen: a 17-year-old cannabis user and mother who hanged herself; a cocaine user who lay dead for three weeks before her mother found her; and teenagers suffering depression and psychosis because of cannabis use.

He outlines the effects on the body and the medical dangers of each drug, including alcohol. “This will be different from any other drugs education you’ve had,” he says. “I’m presenting you with the facts. I don’t do this to shock you, but so you can learn that how someone died is of real significance. It’s about talking to people about what really happens when you take drugs.”

The first inquest concerns the death of Dale Clay, an 18-year-old drug dealer. There to witness the proceedings is his mother Alison, 36.

“Dale was no angel,” she says, “but he was very loved.” The emptiness she feels couldn’t be clearer. She weeps as the details of her son’s death are discussed and the pupils look on, visibly upset.

The teenager, who had recently served 42 months in prison for selling drugs, died in August 2008 after crashing a car into a tree. Police found £800-worth of crack cocaine and heroin hidden in his underwear and think he may have been driving erratically because he was worried about being caught with drugs again.

Afterwards one pupil, Sophie Deegan, 15, says: “It was like seeing some tragic story, except it was real. When someone’s mum is standing there crying it makes you think about your own family and how they would feel if it was you. How awful must it have been for his mum to hear all that. It seems like such a waste of a life.”

As Deegan and her fellow pupils process what they have seen, Josephine Donnelly addresses them. Donnelly, 45, has asked to be here because she is determined that her grief will serve a more positive purpose. Her son, Michael, was 21 when he died in July 2005. He crashed his car after drinking and taking Ecstasy.

From the dark bags under her eyes to the tremble in her voice every time she says her son’s name, she leaves the group in no doubt as to her suffering. They wince as she explains: “This is the story of how bad things can get. My pain will never go away. We did talk about drugs but Michael’s attitude was that cannabis was OK, Ecstasy was OK every now and again and people who took hard drugs such as heroin and coke were ‘the dregs’. My son loved me and I loved him but he wouldn’t listen because he thought it would never happen to him.”

Passing round a photograph of Michael, laughing with his two brothers, she says: “That was him all over, bright and bubbly. But the last time I saw him, he was lying there dead. That image is the last thing I see at night and the first thing I see in the morning. So I’ll say to you, ‘how would your mother, father, brother or sister, live with your death?’ Telling people this hurts but if it makes one young person make that choice not to take drugs then it’s worth it. Perhaps if he had been sat where you are today I’d still have my child.”

Witnessing her grief is a chastening experience, but as the pupils explain later, it is those pictures from Meadows’s files that have made the greatest impression.

He certainly seems to have succeeded in holding the group’s rapt attention. Before he had passed the photo-albums round, the atmosphere had been cheerfully noisy, filled with the sound of fidgeting and nervous chatter. But as the pictures started to circulate, all talk stopped. As the pupils peered down at the images, the stillness was broken only by the odd gasp of fright or surprise or a murmur of revulsion.

Looking at the pictures was voluntary but as the teenagers explained, seeing the graphic deaths of young people (none of those in the shots looked over 30) who once had family, friends and potential, was profound.

“It stops you in your tracks,” Kieran Connor, 16, says. “It makes you think, ‘these were all normal people like us and they ended up like this’. They went wrong somewhere and you don’t want to make the same mistakes. But you don’t think where it all leads; who gets affected by it. It’s good to get behind the scenes.”

Sophie Tattersall agrees. “For once we’re not being talked down to, we’re being spoken to as adults,” she says. “They’re not sitting us down and telling us, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ - they’re just saying ‘here’s what can happen if you do take drugs’. After that it’s up to us.”

Sophie Deegan says that her parents were initially shocked by the idea, but thought it would be a good experience for her. “Some people might think this is too hard-hitting but nothing else works, does it?” she says. “Look what happened with smoking - when they started being more shocking, people started to take notice and stop. It has given me a lot to think about.”

Will these teenagers, growing up in the most drug-tolerant society that we’ve ever had, really respond differently to yet another drugs “message”? They live in a world in which cannabis is ubiquitous, where celebrity culture and cocaine use often go hand in hand, and where their TV shows of choice - dramas such as Hollyoaks and Skins - routinely show glamorous, attractive people enjoying drugs.

Critics say that projects such as these, however well-intentioned, may manage to shock but they are sceptical that they will change behaviour. “Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to show that shock tactics work,” says Elliot Elam, of Addaction, a charity helping young people with drink and drug problems. While he applauds any attempt to help to promote better understanding of the issues, he thinks projects such as these are doomed to fail.

“Drugs don’t have to kill you to cause immeasurable problems,” says Elam. “It’s fantastic to talk more about the medical effects and dangers of drugs. Of course we welcome that, but often vulnerable young people won’t be engaged by a formal talk organised by a school. We believe a more effective measure would be to support the police - who come into contact with vulnerable teens more than any other agency - in passing on information about drugs and drink when they see young people out and about, whether that’s in parks or on street corners.”

However, David Braithwaite, an assistant head teacher who helped to co-ordinate the visit, has no doubt of its validity. In line with government policy, his school offers drugs education in classtime, delivering messages prescribed by the Department for Education. The inquest visit is is a much more dynamic approach, Braithwaite says. “It’s powerful stuff, I’ve never seen anything like this. It is much more valuable than anything I could present in the classroom. I guarantee none of these children would want to dabble in drugs now.”

This may seem over-optimistic, but looking at the discarded photo albums, each one documenting the miserable end of a life lost to drugs, you hope that he’s right.

Like all the young people here, Kieran Connor shares a belief that something must be done. “Drugs are everywhere, everyone knows that. Where we live it is part of life. But this is more powerful than any lesson we could have about drugs in school. This is real so it’s pretty hard to ignore. That’s what we need.”

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