Drug alarmism has always been very dear to politicians and journalists. In the past, they would talk about ‘white death’ with reference to marijuana, giving the impression that someone smoking a joint was at risk of dying. It was crude sensationalism, exploiting people’s ignorance about drugs and their effects on users. It was all part of the simplistic notion that by scaring people nobody would experiment with drugs. This also justified the zero-tolerance policy which led to users being given prison sentences for possession of a small quantity of hashish and being labelled in the media as ‘merchants of death.’

People are better informed nowadays, and the paranoia of the past is no longer evident, but the tendency of politicians and media to blow matters related to drug use out of proportion remains. On Wednesday, for example, the president of the House education committee, Pavlos Mylonas, spoke about the serious drugs issue at schools. Justice Minister Marios Hartsiotis agreed with him, saying that the Drug Squad had contacts at all the schools and had charted the way the drug peddlers were operating.

Hartsiotis also gave some statistics, which, if analysed, suggested there was not much of a problem. In the three years from 2021 to 2023, the Drug Squad sent 420 youths, the majority of whom were students, to detox programmes, he said. Each year, in other words, about 140 students went to these detox programmes. There are some 125 secondary public schools (gymnasiums, lyceums, combined and technical), so if we are dealing with averages for each year, we would have one student per school going to detox programmes. Some of the youths who were obliged to detox were not students, it was reported, while among those who were, there would also be some from private schools. The average, in other words is one case per public school.

There would have been many schools with zero cases and some with more than just one. Regardless of how the cases are distributed – and there may be a few schools at which more teenagers are into drug use – the numbers do not support the position that there is a drug problem at our schools. There is use of soft drugs at all secondary schools in Western countries, where use of recreational drugs by teenagers has been going on for decades and has become part of the growing up process.

Cyprus is no different in this regard, even though politicians cannot resist the urge to engage in drug alarmism. Even the sending of youths to detox programmes, which is cited as proof the problem exists, is not a reliable indicator. Youths often agree to sign up for programmes, not because they are addicts in need of help, but because this is usually a condition for not being charged.

Although drug alarmism has been proved not to work – the number of users of soft drugs is steadily rising, according to most reports – politicians and media insist on resorting to it. Society has a responsibility to inform youths about the risks of drug use, but the message will be taken seriously only if it avoids cheap scare-mongering.