Home > Drug education best practice for health, community, and youth workers.

Dillon, Lucy (2021) Drug education best practice for health, community, and youth workers. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 76, Winter 2021, pp. 11-13.

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A paper by Darcy (2021) outlining a toolkit for those delivering drug education was published in the Health Education Journal entitled ‘Drug education best practice for health, community and youth workers: a practical and accessible tool-kit’.1 It aims to support health, community, and youth workers by providing best practice guidance on drug education with children, young people, and adults. As well as outlining effective approaches to adopt when delivering drug education and issues to consider when setting up and delivering a programme, the paper sets out to provide conceptual clarity on the distinction between drug education and other approaches to drug issues, in particular drug prevention.

Drug education vs drug prevention

Drug education is defined by the author as ‘a systematic process of teaching and learning that involves imparting and acquiring knowledge about drugs to achieve understanding’ (p. 3). He argues that drug education is often misunderstood or conflated with drug information and/or drug prevention.2 This leads to drug education programmes being evaluated against inappropriate outcomes, thus making them appear ineffective. Drug education is best understood as a programme that includes knowledge activities with a clear learning aim. Therefore, its effectiveness is best measured by educational outcomes that capture, for example, the participants’ new understanding of particular drugs or increased knowledge of drug-related harms. Drug prevention, on the other hand, is about effecting changes in behaviour within a population and its effectiveness is therefore measured by exploring behaviour change.

Drug education and best practice standards

The author draws on guidance and evidence reviews that consider best practice for drug education and prevention programmes. He argues that the findings of these outputs are not always evident in practice and that those delivering drug education programmes would benefit from a more accessible synopsis of their findings. To meet this need, he draws key findings from these outputs to provide a toolkit for those working in drug education. Given the nature of the sources involved, these findings tend to be relevant to drug prevention activities more broadly as well as drug education as such.

A selection of key messages is outlined below, each of which is addressed in more detail in Darcy’s paper.

Ineffective approaches and practices to avoid

  • Scare tactics that set out to scare participants by showing them graphic images or telling ‘horror stories’ (p. 4) that sensationalise the effects of drug use
  • Testimonials or guest talks from people who have experienced drug use
  • One-off talks and/or assemblies by experts such as police or medical professionals
  • Information-only programmes
  • Lecture-based (didactic) approaches that deal with the harmful effects of drugs or that focus on drug use as morally wrong
  • Refusal programmes that focus on a ‘just say no’ message. 

Effective approaches and practices to adopt

  • Multicomponent programmes that take a holistic approach to drug education and include the development of personal and social skills to support participants in exploring how to safely navigate social situations in which drug use occurs
  • Interactive programmes that use active learning and participatory teaching strategies
  • Structured programmes that involve a series of structured sessions, boosted by follow-up sessions across time
  • Programmes that are age, developmental level, and culturally appropriate – particularly important when working with children and young people
  • Any focus on risk in relation to drug use that concentrates on short-term rather than long-term consequences
  • Drug education that dispels misconceptions about drugs and their use.

Clancy also makes some general points about delivery, including:

  • The need for appropriate training for those delivering programmes
  • The role of an initial needs assessment before developing a programme
  • The importance of the educator and organisation signing up to a programme/service agreement that outlines what will be delivered and how it will be evaluated
  • The need for caution when using programmes or materials developed by others, or indeed enlisting the services of outside agencies or organisations to deliver drug education
  • The need for participation to be voluntary and based on informed consent (in the case of young people, consent from both the young person and their adult)
  • The need for ongoing evaluation and reflection throughout the programme delivery. 


This paper focuses on the role of drug education as distinct from that of drug prevention. It is a useful starting point for those working in the sector to inform their practice and contribute to the delivery of more effective programmes. International guidance is referred to and the author signposts practitioners to existing resources that may be of interest, including the Best Practice Portal of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) (see accompanying article for more information).

1 Darcy C (2021) Drug education best practice for health, community and youth workers: a practical and accessible tool-kit. Health Educ J, 80(1): 28–39. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/33087/
2 The author has made this argument in previous papers. See C Darcy (2018) The precarious position of drug education workers in Ireland. Economic and Social Review, 49(3): 361–372. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/29721/. It was also covered in Drugnet Ireland, 68: 22.

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