Substance abuse exacts a very significant toll in Nova Scotia1. In addition to the considerable physical and emotional trauma associated with substance-use problems in the lives of individuals, families, and communities, the burden on the public purse in terms of health, social, productivity, and criminal justice costs are very large2. To avoid these costs, an array of programs—spanning health promotion, prevention, early intervention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction—have been established in this province. Among these various options, primary or universal prevention looms large. In fact, due to the potential inherent in the educational process, expectations may be greatest for school drug education. Are these expectations fair? The answer is, “yes and no.”

Educators have a definite role to play in preventing substance abuse, but they cannot be expected to carry the whole load. This is because many of the factors that can influence youthful substance use lie beyond the school grounds. Today’s young people are growing up in a world that tolerates more forms of substance use, both medical and non-medical, than at any other time in history.

As a society, there is a need to establish health-promoting policies governing the control, promotion, and availability of the various legal and illegal substances. At the local level, many others need to play a role in preventing substance-use problems among youth. Parents have perhaps the largest role to play, and definitely need to be involved in finding solutions. So also do youth groups such as Girl Guides, Scouts, boys and girls clubs, and cadets, which engage youth in alternative activities and are in a position to deliver evidence-based preventative programming. Fully comprehensive prevention needs to involve many who have not traditionally been seen as players, such as media outlets, urban planners, housing authorities, shopping mall management, and employment policy makers.

Nevertheless, school drug education can have an important impact on community substance-use problems. On the basis of thousands of studies over the past 30 years, “best practices” are now clearer than ever. It can now be said with some confidence that ongoing delivery of evidence-based drug education programs through the junior high school years can, when delivered as intended, clearly delay use of substances and quite possibly reduce associated problems through a critical period of development when substance use tends to escalate. Because of this effectiveness, school drug education represents a sound public investment. A recent cost analysis of a school drug education program (Caulkins, 2002) found that for every $150 USD invested per participant in a program, $840 USD is saved in health-care, economic, and social costs.

School drug education is an important element in the overall response to Nova Scotia’s substance-use issues, and it is the intent of this supplement to empower teachers and students to actively contribute to this response.

Single, E. et al. (1996). The costs of substance abuse in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

Caulkins, J. et al. (2002).
School-based drug prevention: What kind of drug use does it prevent? Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Rehm, J., Baliunas, D., Brochu, S., Fischer, B., Gnam, W., Patra, S., et al. (2006). The costs of substance abuse in Canada – Full report and tables. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

1. Because tobacco use is addressed in "Smoke-Free for Life. Grades Seven to Nine. A Smoking Prevention Curriculum Supplement." (1992; Updated 2002), this supplement does not address tobacco use.

2. The most recent cost estimate was $1.2 billion per year in Nova Scotia (Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 1996).