Edited by RichardMidford and GeoffreyMunro . Published by IP Communications , Victoria , 2006 . Paperback , 241 pages with index .

Reviewed by Johanna Wyn, Youth Research Centre, Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne, Victoria

This book will be of interest to teachers, teacher-educators and health professionals. It provides a thoughtful, informative commentary on debates and evidence on school drug education from the perspective of eminent drug education professionals and researchers from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. The edited collection encompasses a broad sweep, embracing drug use patterns and drug education strategies across different Western societies, with contributions that maintain a degree of coherence through a focus on two significant questions: why has drug education not meaningfully improved despite substantial support for research and implementation?; and why do governments continue to pour resources into the field when their return on investment seems so slight?

The aim of the book is to explore the basis for the next generation of school drug education programs. The book is structured into 11 chapters that guide the reader to form their own opinion about this fundamental question. As the reader explores these chapters, it becomes clear that there is disagreement in the field. The chapters contain differing views on fundamental issues such as: whether the focus should be on drug education or drug use prevention; whether education for all drugs can be approached in the same way; what constitutes evidence; whether schools are appropriate sites for these issues to be addressed; and whether this should be accomplished through an integrated, locally based, whole-of-school approach to health promotion or through separate, single-issue, national interventions.

The early chapters set the scene by describing the social context of young people's drug use, the history of drug education in Australia and an international perspective on drug use prevention programs. In the first chapter, Munro points out that discretionary drug use is embedded within the cultures of Western societies, that young people's drug use patterns tend to mirror that of their parents’ and that illegal drugs have become readily available in post-industrial societies. Several of the chapters (e.g. those by Roche, Cahill, Deed and Skager) echo Munro's view that ‘zero tolerance’ approaches to drug education are ineffective, and contradict drug education policies based on the philosophy of harm minimisation. The chapter by Midford, Pettingell and Stothard, a historical account of the constant struggle between temperance-based abstinence approaches and harm reduction approaches, supports Munro's observation that drug education is subject to short-term funding ‘cycles’ that provide only temporary support for professional and program development.

These authors point out that there is a pattern of divergence internationally between abstinence/prevention and harm reduction approaches. The ‘Danish approach’, based on harm minimisation, is distinctive for its locally based and integrated approach to drug education within broad social and health issues that affect young people. Anglo-Saxon approaches (Australia, the US, the UK and New Zealand) tend to focus on single-issue approaches to drug education. This chapter provides evidence that harm reduction offers a more effective basis for drug education than abstinence (as does Skager's chapter), but that a consistent, long-term approach is needed, transcending (short-term) political priorities. Many of the chapters also take up the issue of generating better evidence as a basis for developing more effective practice and for overcoming the tendency in Australia for drug education programs to be dominated by political agendas and moral panics.

While the focus of the collection is on school drug education, there is little acknowledgement of the wide diversity of schools and of the different ways in which schools address these issues. Many of the contributions generalise about ‘schools’ as sites for interventions, downplaying the complexities of delivering and measuring programs that involve very different groups, histories, trajectories and resources. The issue of drug education in relation to Indigenous education is not addressed. Despite these limitations, the book nonetheless fills a gap in this significant field and I strongly recommend it.

Readers who are interested in the issue of school drug education will conclude from this book that there is no ‘silver bullet’. Broad approaches will inevitably be shaped by local conditions and needs. As Cahill highlights in her chapter, the challenges of implementing and measuring school drug education programs are complex. Although there is debate, the book offers some consistent messages that provide a basis for forging the next generation of school drug education programs. Three themes stand out: collaboration between education and health experts to produce systematic evidence that is relevant to a wide range of professionals; integrated whole-of-school approaches to health promotion that embed drug education within a community context; and a focus on harm minimisation with a sensitivity to the limits of this approach with regard to some drugs and in some situations. Drug Education in Schools: Searching for the Silver Bullet makes a real contribution to shaping the agenda for the future.