To be Frank. What have ten years of the drugs information brand achieved?

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By Magnus Shaw


It was a hell of a brief. The Home Office had a thing called the National Drugs Helpline, which was rightly considered to be terribly staid, unappealing and out of touch. So, a decade ago, several agencies were asked to pitch alternative brands with a view to making the service more credible, accessible and current. Mother won the business and Frank was born.

The demands were as clear as they were challenging. To stand any chance of success, young people would not only need to be aware of the brand, they'd have to trust it. Statistics would suggest this has been achieved.  A 2007 awareness survey showed  90% of 11 to 18-year-olds knew about Frank and 81% trusted the service to give more reliable advice than their  family, friends or doctor. Over 66% said they would be likely to use Frank in the future.

Although these figures come from Mother, it  would be churlish not to acknowledge this progress as substantial. Indeed, the fact the brand is ten years old points to its strength.

But is there's a problem?

Government research shows teenage drug use remaining steady in the period Frank has been operating (in the case of cannabis, it has actually risen significantly). This means, while the number of people accessing the helpline has increased since the 2003 re-brand, its impact on substance misuse has been negligible. Some would say that is a failure, but that depends whether you consider it the mission of a drugs advisory service to actively discourage the ingestion of narcotics.

The truth about drugs is uncomfortable and has been vehemently denied by successive generations of politicians: something in the human psyche drives us to seek out substances which alter our mood, perception and consciousness. As long as there have been humans, this has been the case. Across millennia, various narcotics have drifted in and out of fashion (you don't see much laudanum at parties these days, do you?) but the tendency for people to take 'drugs' has never wavered.

What's more, the legal situation is confused, illogical and counter-productive. Gaoling a person for possessing  prohibited materials criminalises them, drastically lowers their employment possibilities on their release, introduces them to extraneous crimes and actually increases the likelihood they will become dependent on narcotics. Beyond this, the most dangerous substances do not carry the heaviest penalties and two particularly risky options are completely legal and available in any supermarket - alcohol and tobacco.

For decades, throughout the world, governments have been involved in a notional 'war on drugs' - labouring under the misapprehension that concerted effort can turn humanity away from this primal urge, while simultaneously basing whole economies on the production of cigarettes, wine, beer, tea and coffee. It's hardly surprising people are perplexed.

Young people (horrible phrase) are particularly interested in drugs because they are instinctively attracted to anything adults do - and almost all of us use a drug of some description, even if that is just cappuccino or cigars. And we cannot shield the young from mood-altering substances  simply by making them illegal. As a society we have the responsibility to educate children as they grow. Drugs must be part of that education. If our offspring are going to try drink, dope, speed, meow-meow or Marlboros (and they are) then the most effective ammunition we can give them is knowledge. Ignorance only makes drug use more hazardous, which is why Frank is a genuinely important facility. The opportunity for a young man or woman to discuss whatever they are taking or thinking about taking, without judgement or upset from parents or teachers, is incredibly valuable - and all the evidence suggests many of them do so.

Unfortunately, I suspect Frank is just a drop in the ocean. One helpline cannot possibly address the issue of drugs and the young in its entirety. That will take political and social will, cohesive and intelligent strategies and a realistic, honest view of our relationship with psycho-active chemicals. While I'm delighted this service has been available for ten years and is still going strong, I fear that Frank will only ever scratch the surface until we reach a more enlightened position on drugs.


Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant.





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