Is drug safety education the same as promotion?

How would you feel if your child was being taught to consume drugs safely? Is it better than risking those consuming drugs in a way that could kill them? New Zealanders appear to be torn on the issue. 

Massey High School came under fire this week for distributing a New Zealand Drug Foundation pamphlet to year 13 school students which contained information on consuming meth safely. Advice included remembering to eat regularly when on the drug and to clean the glass pipe. 

A statement from Massey High School said the material in question was taken out of context from a larger book. The material could be found online and as part of an NZ Drug Foundation programme which was fully funded by the Ministry of Health. 

The story has divided the nation, with some defending the attempt at educating students and others slamming it as inappropriate and promoting drug use. 

The principal of Massey High School Glen Denham told the AM Show on Thursday the controversial pamphlet distributed to year 13 students educates them on how to use meth safely rather than risk fatal misuse. But the director of drug education group MethCon said suggesting there's a safe way of using drugs is ridiculous. 

"As a parent or a taxpayer, are you happy that your taxpayer money is being used to fund this material? I know I'm not. And certainly as a parent I'm not either," said managing director of MethCon Dale Kirk.

"Methamphetamine... it's a completely different monster. It's by far the most addictive drug and you can't use the drug safely. That's the equivalent of telling someone who has shot someone to wipe their prints off the gun."

Some of the instructions included in a pamphlet given to Massey High School students.
Some of the instructions included in a pamphlet given to Massey High School students. Photo credit: Supplied

But Ellen MacGregor-Reid, deputy secretary for early learning and student achievement at the Ministry of Education, told Newhsub on Friday that alcohol and drug education is "an important part of the health and PE learning area within the New Zealand curriculum." 

"The curriculum sets expectations for schools about the types of things students should understand i.e. harm minimisation in the form of prevention, delay and reduction, but doesn't dictate how those lessons are taught," she said. 

The ministry has developed a guide to help schools who are developing their alcohol and drug education programmes, she said.  

"As part of this guide, we recommend schools take a school-wide approach to developing policy and procedures around drugs and alcohol. This means working with all those involved in the school from the Board to student leaders and the wider school community." 

"We also recommend that parents are involved in conversations about their children's education- including their alcohol and drug education."

Where is the line?

But when does educating students about safe drug use cross over into promoting drugs? Even if the information is provided to prevent young people from using drugs in a fatal way, some feel the NZ Drug Foundation went too far telling students to be "discrete and only keep less than 5 grams for personal use".

Nevertheless, the number of meth users in New Zealand is growing. The Global Drug Survey from 2017 estimates there are approximately 138,000 meth users in the country - that's the population of Tauranga, or the cities of Napier and Hastings combined. 

A new study published by Massey University shows a dramatic rise in the use of imported crystal methamphetamine, and the drug is said to be just as easy to access as marijuana. 

Methamphetamine is an A class drug that's illegal in New Zealand and highly dangerous. An overdose of meth can result in heart failure, and long-term physical effects such as liver, kidney, and lung damage may also kill you, says. 

Some schools have responded to the epidemic by promoting zero tolerance of drugs and expelling students with drug-related offences. OIA figures released to Newshub revealed that 448 secondary school students were suspended for drug use and 67 primary school students were suspended for their illegal substance abuse. 

The funeral of Mitchell Heward, 17, who died in February 2016 after consuming an excess amount of alcohol.
The funeral of Mitchell Heward, 17, who died in February 2016 after consuming an excess amount of alcohol. Photo credit: Supplied

But there are apparent downsides to not educating young people about substance abuse. For example, Mitchell Heward, 17, died in February 2016 after consuming an excess amount of alcohol at Lake Kaniere, on the West Coast. 

Coroner Anna Tutton emphasised the importance of educating young people on safe consumption of alcohol saying it is "critical that young drinkers, particularly, appreciate the seriousness of the dangers of binge drinking, and know what to do if someone becomes unresponsive after drinking." 

Should the same thinking be applied to meth use?

"While efforts are underway to control drug supply, it is also very important to ensure anyone using methamphetamine can get the help they need," said the NZ Drug Foundation in a statement on Wednesday. 

"Young New Zealanders are growing up in a world where this and other drugs exist. All young New Zealanders have a choice about whether to use or not, at some stage in their life. Some will make the decision to use, and a few will come to harm." 

The organisation said the criticism directed at Massey High School for distributing the pamphlet to students is "misplaced". 

"Bringing a critical perspective to a booklet produced for adults who are struggling with their existing drug use makes sense in a teaching setting," the statement added. 

The organisation said it welcomes the debate on the appropriateness of meth educational resources being used in the classroom. It said it's " very open about to talking about why we do things the way we do, and most importantly, how we can work together to ensure an Aotearoa free from drug harm." 

More than 20,000 copies of the 20 page MethHelp booklet were distributed around New Zealand in the past 12 months, according to the NZ Drug Foundation. The booklet focuses on how someone can cut down or stop using methamphetamine.  

"We advise that the safest use is no use, but we also accept that people will make their own choices," the organisation said. 

"It is our role as public health professionals to provide resources and support so that people do not come to harm as a result of that choice."