What do these people have in common? Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Lennon, Wendall Sailor, Andrew Johns, Bob Dylan, Ben Cousins, Tony Abbott, Mark Latham, Madonna and Barack Obama.

Answer – they have all at some time in their lives used illegal drugs. And they are all role models for our children.

Yes, world leaders, great sportsmen, brilliant minds – they all can take illegal drugs at some stage of their lives and not just live to tell the tale, but thrive and prosper.

Which just puts into stark perspective the entirely predicable action of NSW Health Minister Reba Meagher who this week announced that a pamphlet offering children guidance on harm minimisation re illegal drug use would be pulped. Equally predictable was that this announcement was made after the tabloid media had got itself puffed up with their unique brand of polyester outrage.

The government-funded brochure was distributed to Year 9 and 10 students in western Sydney. For those intent on ignoring warnings not to use drugs, the brochure urged teenagers to become acquainted with their family medical history, wait until the age of 18 and “use only small amounts and not too often”.

Now, you might feel that this is totally inappropriate and that there is just one message that should be given to kids about drugs – a loud, clear and unequivocal “Just Say No”.

Fine. But if that’s where you stand, you better have a ready answer to these questions: First, how come some of these illegal drugs have been sold legally at various times?

In 19th century Australia a wide range of drugs, including opiates, were available to the public and were extremely popular particularly among women (suffering from neurasthenia and other “female problems”) and a wide variety of tonics and elixirs containing opium were readily available. In the later half of the 19th century, cocaine was widely used in patent medicines, alcohol and soft drinks. Until 1909 it was an ingredient of Coca-Cola. It was also prescribed by Sigmund Freud as a cure for alcohol and opium dependence.

Conversely, from 1920 to 1933 the sale of alcohol was banned under the United States Constitution. At the same time, opium and marijuana were legally available. So how can a drug be evil one year and socially acceptable the next?

Here’s the next question: knowing that illegal drugs are harmful, and knowing that their mere possession can lead to sanctions under the criminal law, then why do so many intelligent people across all strata of society take them?

How many Australians have ever taken an illegal drug? The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s 2004 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that over one-third (38%) of the population aged 14 years and over had used an illicit drug.

When looking just at ecstasy, approximately 1.2 million Australians had used at least once.

So here’s another question: if you’re scared that any change in drug laws or to the official hardline attitude to drugs will lead us to a society saturated in illegal drugs, then isn’t that exactly what we have now?

I have two small children. Thank goodness they’ll get sound age-appropriate advice from their mum and dad about the realities of drug use and not insipid misinformation from – of all people – the NSW Department of Health.

So are drugs really good for kids? Of course not. I’m not saying they are good for anybody.

But while it may be admirable to hope for a world with zero drug use (in which case I’m sure you’ll be putting those hopes into action by not having that cigarette, coffee or glass of wine this evening) it is so naïve as to be unrealistic.

And if you look at the undeniable evidence of widespread drug use in Australian society today, and the fact that some drug use seems to have occurred throughout human history, then it’s not just unrealistic, it’s dangerous.

How dangerous? Consider this: it’s a fact that one night your children will be offered drugs. A joint at a party, a line of cocaine or an ecstasy tablet at a nightclub. How they respond depends on how smart they are. And thanks to Reba Meagher and the Just Say No crowd, our kids just got a whole lot dumber.

Duncan Fine is co-author of Why TV is good for kids (Pan Macmillan).

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