Home > The place of drug education in Ireland’s response to drug use.

Dillon, Lucy (2019) The place of drug education in Ireland’s response to drug use. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 68, Winter 2019, p. 22.

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A recent paper examines the position of drug education workers who work with children and young people in non-formal education settings in Ireland.1 Drug education is described in the article as ‘a range of interventions across multi-disciplinary settings and includes education programmes, policies and guidelines’. While not unpacked in the paper, the author highlights that the terms ‘drug prevention’ and ‘drug education’ are often used interchangeably but they are distinct activities. Drug prevention’s primary aim is to change people’s behaviour around drug use, whereas drug education is more about delivering factual information about drugs to people.2 This article is only interested in the latter. 

Research and analysis

There are three main strands to the author’s research and analysis. 

Origins of drug education in Ireland

In 1974, the Committee on Drug Education recommended that drug education should be included as part of a broad health education programme to be delivered in schools. The author describes the development of drug education programmes as ‘slow’ (p. 363) but the introduction of programmes such as On My Own Two Feet and the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum meant that the provision of drug education for children and young people was ‘placed firmly’ (p. 363) within the remit of the formal education sector. However, there was also scope for it to be delivered within non-formal education settings. When local and regional drug and alcohol task forces were established (late 1990s and early 2000s, respectively), funding was made available for drug education workers. The provision of community-based drug awareness programmes was reinforced by the national drugs strategy that ran from 2001 to 2008 (p. 62).3 

Development and demise of Drug Education Workers Forum

The Drug Education Workers Forum (DEWF) was established in 2000 as a voluntary organisation. Among its aims were to provide drug education workers with the opportunity to network, exchange drug-related information, and influence policy through the forum’s collective voice. As part of its work in 2007, it published A manual on quality standards in substance use education (QSSE)4 – this was ‘an overarching framework and guidelines for practitioners of drug education and those commissioning drug education programmes’ (p. 364). The start of the recession in 2007, however, meant cuts to funding and a redeployment of staff. The author argues that this resulted in a significant reduction of drug education workers being funded by the task forces, and ultimately led to the demise of the DEWF. While an evaluation of the QSSE was published in 2013, the author describes drug education workers as being ‘largely voiceless at national platforms’ since then (p. 365). 

Drug education as part of response to illicit drug use

Secondary analysis of the three national drug strategies covering the period 2001 to 2018 was carried out, along with the 2016 annual reports from the local and regional drug and alcohol task forces. The purpose was to explore the prominence of drug education workers in the national response to drug use, and an estimation of the numbers working in the field. The overall picture was one in which drug education as such has become a less prominent feature of the strategic response. The author describes a ‘sheer absence’ (p. 368) of references to drug education in the current national drugs strategy (2017–2025),5 other than one within the context of harm reduction activities. He also identifies the number of drug education workers within the local and regional drug and alcohol task forces as ‘very low’ (p. 370). It is important to notehowever that many of those working in the task forces in prevention rather than drug education as such will be delivering drug education as part of their work. 


The author concludes that drug education as a field in Ireland has diminished over time and workers are in a precarious position. While he acknowledges that this may partly be due to a lack of evidence of its effectiveness as a form of drug prevention, he argues that the efficacy and effectiveness of drug education should be measured in an education rather than a prevention framework. This would make it possible to ‘measure the learning that takes place in drug education programmes and document the educational benefit to participants’ (p. 371). However, the author does not provide further evidence of why these specific outcomes are important within the context of a national response to illicit drug use. Therefore, while drug education is ongoing in Ireland within the broader contexts of prevention and harm reduction activities, it would be interesting to have clarified why educational outcomes alone are of value as this is not suggested as a priority internationally.2



1    Darcy C (2018) The precarious position of drug education workers in Ireland. Economic and Social Review, 49(3): 361–372. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/29721/

2    See for example Warren F (2016) ‘What works’ in drug education and prevention? Edinburgh: Scottish Government. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/26557/

3    Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation (DoTSR) (2001) Building on experience: national drugs strategy 2001–2008. Dublin: Stationery Office. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/5187/

4    Drug Education Workers Forum (DEWF) (2007) A manual in quality standards in substance use education. Dublin: Drug Education Workers Forum. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/6339/  

5    Department of Health (2017) Reducing harm, supporting recovery: a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017‒2025. Dublin: Department of Health. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/27603/

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