Home > Understanding substances and substance use: A handbook for teachers.

Keane, Martin (2005) Understanding substances and substance use: A handbook for teachers. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 14, Summer 2005, pp. 6-7.

PDF (Drugnet Ireland, issue 14) - Published Version

On 15 December 2004 the Substance Misuse Prevention (Walk Tall) Programme of the Department of Education and Science hosted the launch of Understanding substances and substance use: A handbook for teachers by Minister Mary Hanafin TD. The handbook is intended as a resource for teachers delivering substance use education in the context of Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) in both primary and post-primary schools.1 It was developed and produced by the Walk Tall Programme in partnership with the Addiction Services and Health Promotion Department of the South Western Area Health Board.

The handbook includes material on defining substance terminology; theoretical stages of substance use and risk and protective factors surrounding substance use. In addition there is information on how substances can be ingested, their effects and their legal status. There is also material on developing drug education and drug policies in schools.

Section five of the handbook includes key insights into the Zinberg approach to understanding substance use, while section eight addresses the recent phenomenon of home drug testing. Both sections are treated to a more discursive approach below in an attempt to draw out some of the key points.

Section five highlights the 'epidemiological triangle of drug use' that describes the three factors that impact on all stages of drug use. This section is grounded in the theoretical proposition of Zinberg.2 According to Zinberg there are three key factors in play when drugs are being used; the make up and compound of the drug itself (drug), the psychology of the person taking the drug (set) and the social environment in which the drug is taken (setting). Reference to the framework provides for the removal of the temptation to demonise the properties of drugs as solitary effect producers, without considering the psychological condition and social context of the user. Such demonisation is not dissimilar to the 'scare tactics' approach to drug education that Morgan (2001) cautions against.3 Both approaches are based on the premise that when ingested, often on the first occasion, the properties of certain drugs will result in irreversible experiences such as addiction or criminality. Overstating the probability of such experiences can result in the loss of credibility between students and teachers, particularly if students have experience of their peers using drugs without evidence of major consequences. The drug, set and setting framework can be useful for teachers in classroom discussion, particularly in secondary school drug education, as it allows teachers to address the issues without denying or demonising the effects that drugs can produce, but by understanding such effects through the interaction between us, the drug and our environment.

Section eight addresses the signs and symptoms of drug use and the issue of home drug testing. The section highlights the need for teachers and parents to be aware that signs and symptoms that may traditionally be linked to drug use, such as erratic mood swings, changes in appearance and loss of interest in school, are also normative aspects of the experience of adolescence. The inclusion of the issue of home drug testing is a welcome contribution to the debate on the merits or otherwise of using such tests. The section highlights a number of practical, ethical and legal issues that require consideration from schools or parents prior to the use of this form of drug testing, for example:

  • How will the test impact on the relationship between the young person and their parents or school in terms of trust?
  • How will a urine sample (most common way of testing) be obtained? Any degree of coercion has quite serious legal implications for either the parents or the school in terms of the young person’s rights.
  • Are the results reliable? For example, unlike medical professionals who normally carry out such tests, schools and parents are unlikely to be appropriately trained to obtain the sample, carry out the test and interpret the results.  In addition, false positives can result if the individual has been taking over-the-counter medicines containing codeine or opiate derivatives. 

The handbook is a welcome contribution to the task of 'educating the educators' on drug-related information and can play a useful role in assisting schools to deliver quality drug education and develop and implement a drug policy as recommended in the National Drugs Strategy.


1. Keane R, Reaper-Reynolds S, Williams J and Wolfe E (2004) (Eds) Understanding substances and substance use: A handbook for teachers. Dublin: Addiction Services and Health Promotion Department, South Western Area Health Board and the Substance Misuse Prevention Programme, Department of the Education and Science.

2. Zinberg NE (1984) Drug, set, and setting: The basis for controlled intoxicant use. New Haven: Yale University Press.

3. Morgan M (2001) Drug use prevention: overview of research. Dublin: National Advisory Committee on Drugs.

To obtain copies of the handbook, contact Mary Johnson, National Co-ordinator of Walk Tall at 087 2839218. A copy is also available in the National Documentation Centre on Drug Use.


Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
All substances
Issue Title
Issue 14, Summer 2005
April 2005
Page Range
pp. 6-7
Health Research Board
Issue 14, Summer 2005
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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