Children calling the Government’s drugs helpline are being told that cannabis is safer than alcohol and that ecstasy will not damage their health, an investigation by The Sunday Telegraph has found.
Advisers manning the “Frank” helpline are informing callers they believed to be children as young as 13 that alcohol is a “much more powerful drug than cannabis” and that using the illegal drug recreationally is not harmful because it “doesn’t get you that high”.
Callers are also being told that taking ecstasy will not lead to long-term damage and that if they are in doubt, to “just take half a pill and if you are handling that OK, you can take the other half.”
They are even being told that they would be able to smoke a cannabis joint, on top of ecstasy, with no ill-effects.
The advice, given to reporters who rang the helpline posing as young people, has alarmed anti-drugs campaigners who branded it “scandalous” and “irresponsible.”
Health experts have condemned the advice given to children as “frankly appalling”, “factually incorrect” and “worryingly cavalier”.
After being presented with the findings, the Government last night said it had launched an immediate investigation into the Frank service, which is funded by three separate departments, and said it would be taking action advisers involved.
Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, said: “The idea that the Government’s helpline should be saying to young people “go for it” and that cannabis should be class C when it has just been classified by the Government as class B, shows that the Home Office is all over the place in its approach to drugs.”
Professor Neil McKeganey, professor of drug misuse research, at Glasgow University, said: “Having read one of the transcripts, it is extraordinary that the Frank councillor seems more concerned to place cannabis smoking in some kind of comfort zone of acceptable behaviour rather than address the risks of such drug use on the part of a 13-year-old child.”
Mary Brett, a spokesman for the Talking About Cannabis charity, said: “It is scandalous. These people are talking to kids, for goodness sake. Taking drugs can trigger all kinds of psychosis in people that have a genetic predisposition to it. Why are they not told that? Medical experts have said time and again that skunk, the newer type of cannabis that many young people are taking, is dangerous.
“These children are being told they can choose. But the risky bit of their brains develops before the inhibitory bit of their brain and they take risks.
“They have to be told ‘this is not for you’. When they hear fair, reasoned arguments against, they respond. It is obvious they are not hearing them from Frank.”
The helpline, established by the Government in 2003 with UKP 3 million funding, was described in a Home Office drugs strategy recently as “the key channel by which Government communicates the dangers of drugs, including cannabis, to young people”.
But in calls to its helpline, manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, reporters posing as teenagers were told by different advisers that drug taking was not harmful.
At no point in the conversations did the Frank team try to dissuade the callers from taking drugs.
The effects on the body were played down to the extent that one adviser, referring to ecstasy, said: “At the end of the day I know where you’re coming from – doing a pill and it felt great.”
Another councillor said that cannabis, a class B drug, should be regarded as class C and that “cannabis doesn’t really get you that high. You know you are always in control”.
A third adviser stated: “nicotine is physically addictive. Cannabis isn’t. You can stop smoking it any time you want.”
Alcohol was presented as a much greater danger than illegal drugs, including heroin, more expensive and with many more negative effects.
One adviser told a caller: “The withdrawals of alcohol are worse than heroine for example; people can die when they become addicted to alcohol and stop suddenly.”
The reporters were also told that the police “would not do anything” if they found a young person with cannabis and that if they are caught with pills, they should say they were for their own use to avoid being prosecuted as a dealer.
In one call, where the reporter claimed to be the friend of a 13-year-old boy who had started smoking cannabis, the adviser said: “He won’t get addicted, no. Tell him you spoke to Frank and they told me it’s not as dangerous as alcohol. Tell him they said by using it recreationally, it’s not as bad as alcohol, because that’s the truth in terms of the power of the drug.”
He went on to say that if alcohol was illegal, it would be a class A drug, the most harmful category, whereas “cannabis should just be a class C drug”.
Another reporter, posing as a 15-year-old girl who had taken her first ecstasy tablet, asked if it would affect her health in any way.
The response was “Nah”. He told the caller that he could not say “go and take Es, you’re absolutely fine”, but that “in terms of taking a pill like that, it’s not going to affect your health”.
He went on to say “obviously you had a really good experience. It’s like most things, if you do it in moderation, you lessen your chances.
“A good idea is if you don’t know what it is you are taking, take a half a one and see how you go and if you are handling that OK, you can take the other half.”
The adviser was also unsure what classification the Class A drug was.
During a discussion where the adviser talked about mixing drugs, the reporter asked if it was safe to have cannabis after taking an ecstasy pill.
The adviser said: “Again, I’m not condoning it but it wouldn’t spin you out like another pill or powder. If you’re asking me if you could have a spliff with it, would it have any major affects, generally speaking, no, although people are individuals so what works for one might not work for another, but generally speaking, no, you’d be able to have spliff with it.”
An estimated five million people in the UK are users of illegal or street drugs.
Health experts are growing increasingly worried about the affects on young people’s mental health. There is also growing evidence that contrary to earlier assumptions, cannabis can be addictive.
Varieties of skunk, which contain much higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol ( THC ), the active chemical, are more dangerous than the cannabis used in the 1960s and 1970s but are now widespread and often the choice of young people.
Dr Zerrin Atakan, consultant psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry, said: “Any drug use while the brain is still developing may lead to structural or functional changes. One Australian study has shown that heavy cannabis users show clear structural abnormalities of the brain.
“Another recent study has also shown that cannabis use before 18 can lead to abnormalities in areas of the brain that control memory, attention, decision-making and language skills.
“Also, contrary to previously held beliefs, it is now considered that regular users can develop ‘tolerance’ to the drug, one of the main characteristics of addiction. Regular users require higher doses to become ’stoned’. Some people find it very hard to give it up and become highly anxious if they do.”
According to the Home Office, drug use among all ages, including young people, has fallen in recent years. The Government, which downgraded cannabis to a grade C drug in 2004, has recently reclassified it to B.
A Government spokesman said: “It is completely unacceptable for a Frank adviser to be giving out wrong, misleading and inaccurate information. We are urgently looking into the matter and will identify the person or persons involved and take action.
“Frank is an important resource for young people who need help and advice about drugs. It is vital that Frank advisers give out correct and straight forward advice – we have therefore commissioned a review of the training advisers receive and will act upon it.”
DRUGS HELP: WHAT IS FRANK?
The Frank helpline and website was established in 2003. It was welcomed as a departure from the outdated “just say no” campaign.
Its aim is to provide young people with the facts about drug use so they can make informed choices. The non-judgemental approach focuses on “harm reduction” rather than simply telling young people not to do drugs.
Frank, which has 75 “fully trained drug workers” manning its helpline, has received millions of pounds of taxpayers money. In 2008/09 it received UKP 2 million from the Department of Health, UKP 2.7 million from the Home Office and UKP 1.8 from the Department of Children, Schools and Families.
Scientific and other information is provided to Frank from a number of organisations, including the Scottish Drugs Forum and DrugsScope, a Government-funded charity, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the Forensic Science Service.
The Scottish Drugs Forum provides a training programme for Frank which covers themes such as “drugs and their effects”, “attitudes and awareness of drugs”, “how problematic drug use affects children” and “families and child protection”. Only individuals who have worked in areas such as counselling, nursing or social work are recruited to become advisers.
Frank has run a number of high-profile television advertising campaigns, pointing out the dangers of cannabis and cocaine.
A recent campaign featured the comedian David Mitchell providing the voice-over for a dog called Pablo.
Since it was established, it has received more than two million calls to its helpline and at least 11 million hits on its website.
A survey in 2008 found that 89 per cent of 11 to 21 year olds recognised the Frank adverts, while 82 per cent were aware of the website.
FRANK DRUGS TALKS: THE TRANSCRIPTS
The full transcripts of the Sunday Telegraph’s phone calls with “Frank”, the Government’s drugs helpline.
First phone call:
The Sunday Telegraph: My friend has started to smoke the occasional joint. Do you think I should tell his parents about it or my teacher?
Frank: How old is he?
ST: He’s 13. I’m worried it’s going to change his personality. I have only seen him do it a few times. Will he turn into a crack addict? He say’s it’s not affecting him at all. I’m worried it’s going to affect his personality.
Frank: How often have you seen him smoking?
ST: I have only seen him do it a couple of times. Will he turn into a crack addict?
Frank: No that’s not the way it works. If you use it a couple of times it doesn’t have to cause any problems. People drink all the time. Alcohol is a much more powerful drug than cannabis, and people don’t turn into alcoholics and crack addicts or anything like that. It doesn’t mean he’s going to go down the road to destruction. That’s not the way it works.
ST: I’m worried it’s going to affect his school grades.
Frank: Ask him how much does he use. What do you think you will gain by telling his parents?
ST: Well I want him to stop it.
Frank: Its up to you, that’s personal to you. They won’t be able to stop him unless they lock him in a room. He’s starting to become his own person. You know if you want to do something, then you will find a way a round it, don’t you? They [parents] are not going to be with you all the time.
Frank: How do you feel when he is drinking?
ST: Well, we all drink occasionally.
Frank: But that doesn’t worry you at all?
ST: Not as much as cannabis.
Frank: It’s a lot more potent than cannabis. It’s only when someone is smoking all day every day that problems with cannabis will arise. If people use it every now and again like they would drink, then it’s a less powerful drug then alcohol. That might help you put it into perspective. To make your mind up of what you want to do.
ST: I had a talk at school recently and they said if you smoke occasionally you wont get addicted, is that right?
Frank: Yeah, that’s right. Find out what sort of frequency he is doing? But if he’s only smoking when he goes to parties, then that doesn’t mean it’s a gateway to being a crack addict.
ST: We have started going to a few parties recently and sometimes we are smoking. But I feel it’s better he drinks rather than smokes.
Frank: Why do you feel that?
ST: I feel cannabis will affect him worse.
Frank: That’s not the truth. Its not advertised that way by the government, but that’s not the way it works. You will be able to tell in the morning if you have been drinking – you might have a hangover. Well you are quite young so you might not have a hangover. Alcohol is a powerful drug in what it does on to your body and how many brains cells it kills and stuff. Cannabis is not to be taken lightly, but it’s a lot less powerful. If alcohol were illegal it would be a Class A drug. Cannabis should just be a Class C drug. In terms of its affects it’s a lot less powerful than drinking.
ST: Should I just let him get on with it? I mean will he get addicted?
Frank: He wont get addicted, no. Tell him you spoke to Frank and they told me it’s not as a dangerous as alcohol but they did tell me if it becomes every day that’s when you start having problems. But they said by using it as recreationally it is less dangerous than alcohol, because that’s the truth, in terms of the power of the drug. I mean when you are stoned you don’t lose control as much as you do when you are drunk. Cannabis doesn’t really get you that high, where you don’t know where you are and what you are doing or what you are saying. You know you are always in control, so from that point of view, it is a lot safer.
ST: I just get quite confused. I’m not sure what to think. Sometimes it seems to me that alcohol isn’t as bad as cannabis.
Frank: That’s because you are used to seeing everyone on alcohol. And you know what’s going to happen. And also because of the advertising campaigns that are saying it’s a really powerful drug. Alcohol is really addictive. The withdrawals of alcohol are worse than heroine for example; people can die when they become addicted to alcohol and stop suddenly. There are all sorts of aspects to alcohol we don’t know about.
Because we don’t know as much about cannabis and what we do know is put out there by the government and its all about the negative side of things, then people tend to feel its a lot more strong.
ST: When we had that talk at school, they said it was okay to smoke occasionally and you wont get addicted. Is that correct?
Frank: Yeah, yeah. Find out what his views are on it.
ST: He says it won’t affect him. He’s quite good at school and I am worried it will change his grades.
Frank: Well no more than going out drinking would. Why would it be different? If he starts using it more and more, but if he’s just smoking when he is at a party then that’s not a problem – at all.
ST: If I see him doing more, what should I say?
Frank: Speaking with his parents will be a bit strange. You might get in trouble with him. Speak to a teacher first.
ST: Our school is telling us its illegal. So I thought about going to the police about it?
Frank: Why would you go to the police?
ST: Because it is illegal, isn’t it?
Frank: Yeah, yeah. But why? So they can catch him with it? Is that what you mean?
ST: I might get into trouble.
Frank: Underage drinking is illegal and you don’t see a problem with that. And underage sex is illegal as well, but it doesn’t mean it’s a really bad thing. It just means that for whatever political reasons it’s illegal at some point. It is unlikely the police would do something about it anyway, in the same way they won’t go and find teenagers having sex. They are not bothered about that; they are bothered about the person using it all the time or supplying – that kind of thing. That’s what the police are there for.
ST: I think it might speak to him about it now, so thanks.
Second phone call:
ST: Hi, I just wanted to get some advice about my friend. Sometimes we go out at weekends, and he’s started smoking the occasional joint. I have seen him do it a couple of times. He’s a good mate from school. Should I tell his parents about it?
Frank: How old is he?
ST: He’s 13.
Frank: Have you tried talking to him first?
ST: Yeah. But I’m worried it might change his personality.
Frank: Have you had education about it at school? Are you at school with him?
ST: We had a talk at school and they said its okay to have the occasional joint because you don’t get addicted from it.
Frank: The main thing is because your body is so young you don’t know how much damage it could do. If he’s just keeping it to the occasional weekend, then I can’t see it doing him too much damage. I’m not sure what it would achieve by telling his parents.
ST: He says it doesn’t affect him, I don’t know quite what it’s going to do
Frank: I would definitely keep an eye on it. Have you got any local groups you could speak to?
ST: I don’t know there might be. We drink at the weekends.
Frank: Would you tell his parents that he drank? Alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs there is. You need to be careful about everything you do. You need to look after each other when you are out.
ST: I’m worried he might turn into a crack addict now he’s started on cannabis.
Frank: That’s unlikely. Crack is a long way from cannabis. You need to put things in perspective. Nicotine is physically addictive. Cannabis isn’t. You can stop smoking it any time you want. Alcohol is the same. Cannabis – you get in the habit of doing it, because you enjoy doing it. If he’s just doing it at weekends, that should be fine. When it becomes a problem is when people start doing it all the time.
ST: That’s what our school talk was sort of about.
Frank: What did they say? If you get in the habit of doing it everyday, then it becomes addictive. It’s addictive in a psychological way. What’s the issue here? You’re under 16 so cannabis is as bad as cigarettes and drinking.
ST: I suppose I’m worried that you become mental?
Frank: The best way if you are worried, is to keep your relationship going with him. Then if does start smoking more. if you fall out by talking to his parents.. You’re worried about him. But be worried about everything; be worried about drinking. If you just keep it at weekends, I don’t think it’s likely to cause him any major problems.
ST: He’s saying that I should try it. I want to keep in the gang.
Frank: Just say you tried it before and you didn’t like it.
ST: If the cops saw us with a fag, they’re not going to do us but if we were caught with cannabis….
Frank: They would probably take you to the station. And tell your parents. If its first offence, you would get a warning and stuff. Just don’t feel pressured to do anything.
Third phone call:
Frank: Can I ask how old you are?
ST: I’m nearly 16
Frank: Oh right you sound older.
ST: I took an E for the first time and I wonder if it will affect my health in any way?
Frank: Nah. Did it have a name?
ST: I just did it, like.
Frank: Were you with friends?
Frank: How did you feel?
Frank: Thing with Es is that if you get a decent E folk get very kind of ‘ahh the world’s a great place’. Sometimes though there’s no quality control. It used to be UKP 15, now you can get it for UKP 1. It’s hard to know what you are getting. Bit a coke, Ketamine, MDMA. It’s not like you will always get the same affect.
ST: So there are good ones and bad ones?
Frank: Yes. There are ones that make you a bit tired or folk are having a good one and talk about a “smack attack” – there’s not actually heroin in it at all, but folk will be buzzing, and then you feel really heavy and lethargic. People might come up and say “come and dance” and you say “nah” and then in a couple of minutes you’re “hey” again. But in terms of taking a pill like that, it’s not going to effect your health. You didn’t have any ill effects at all, you felt really good?
ST: I felt ok after.
Frank: Notice a come down or anything?
Frank: A bit tired?
ST: Yes, we were up late.
Frank: Bit of after effect where you’re feeling really good and then… Did you get any visual things?
Frank: Then what will happen is like it has almost worn off but its almost like speeding and you can’t get to sleep. Were you dancing and that?
Frank: You can imagine why people take them in nightclubs. I’m not saying it’s right but you can imagine why – music, strobe lights. The down side is that people think ‘I’ll just take a few or a bit of speed’.
ST: You’re alright if you don’t mix it?
Frank: I can’t sit here and say ‘it’s cool, go and take Es, you’re absolutely fine’. I can point out the dangers but if you are going to do it, you’re going to do it. My point is to tell you what to look out for. A good idea is, if you don’t know what it is you are taking, take a half of one and see how you go and if you are handling that ok, you can take the other half. Ideally if you are going to take stuff, if your mates know the person. Because if you don’t know them they could sell you anything. They don’t care. Try and get it through someone you know. Or if you know that someone you know has taken the pills. Talk to someone you trust.
ST: I’m working for my exams and that, so don’t want to do it quickly but if I did does that mean you’re going to get addicted or anything.
Frank: No. You obviously had a really good experience. Its like most things, if you do it in moderation, you lessen the chance. It’s only when folk do it all the time. If you only wanted to go out if there were pills, that’s when you know you’ve got a problem. The other thing is, it brings you in to contact with other people they might come up and say ‘try this coke’ – you’ve just got to be strong in yourself. At the end of the day I know where you’re coming from – doing a pill and it felt great. You’re doing exactly the right thing calling up and finding out the facts.
ST: I’ve got friends who get p—-d up every weekend and you’re thinking ‘well…’
Frank: They probably spend more money and are more likely to get in to trouble with the cops. Google Frank on the website and look up Es and it will tell you the effects and what the law is.
ST: what could the coppers do if they found you with them?
Frank: They’re a Class A I think, or a Class B. Let me check, I should know that. Worst thing you can do – if you have ecstasy or any drug and you said they’re not mine they for my mate, that would be intent to supply, which is dealing. End of the day just say ‘no they’re mine’.
Bear in mind some are stronger than others.
ST: So you should never do more than one of them?
Frank: Yes. Some folk might think ‘I’ll do two of these’. Like Mitzubishis have a logo on them. If you look closely they can have something stamped on them, like a dove or a smiley face. It’s Class A drug. Possession can get you seven years, supplying can get you life. One problem is they’re very rarely pure and can be cut with all kinds of things. Physical side effects – your pupils get bigger. Some folk will be clenching their jaws like they’re chewing. Short term effects can include anxiety, paranoia, panic attacks stuff like that. And there’s no way you can tell what’s in it until you’ve done it, so take half a one or make sure if your mates have taken it before it will give you an idea.
ST: But you said short-term effects so there’s no need to worry a few weeks later?
Frank: Yes. You might get hot and dehydrated if you were in a nightclub, so drink water. But you know when people die from E – and there have been a few E deaths – it’s generally because they’ve drunk too much water. Believe it or not. Sip a pint of water an hour, don’t go drinking 15 pints of water. That’ll kill you. Leah Betts – too much water. Some folk take it to the max. It has been linked to liver and kidney problems but if you are just doing it every now and again… Last thing is activating infections like cystitis. I’m not saying its going to happen to you but at least you’re clued up because you’ve taken the trouble to ask
ST: What about if you have a spliff after?
Frank: That would be alright. It wouldn’t effect it. Say someone had plenty of coke, which is a stimulant. Taking uppers and downers what can happen is… Take for instance coke and smack. Coke is taking over and your heart is thinking ‘I’m going’, but the smack is working the opposite way and slowing you down. Try not to mix drugs. Do you smoke? So you’re used to the effect of it…?
ST: Yes, you know, a bit?
Frank: Again I’m not condoning it but it wouldn’t spin you out like another powder or a pill. If you are asking me if you could have a spliff with it, would it have any major effects? Generally speaking, no, although people are individuals so what works for one person might not work for another, but generally speaking, no, you’d be able to have spliff with it.
Source: Sunday Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: Telegraph Group Limited 2009
Authors: Julie Henry, David Barrett and Alex Ralph