The drugs education that my school skipped

Elle Wadsworth on the 'Say Why to Drugs' podcast.

Say Why to Drugs (SWTD) is a fortnightly, fact-based, educational podcast discussing legal and illegal recreational drugs, dealing with the myths and realities surrounding one drug in each episode. It is created and presented by Dr Suzi Gage, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol, who is joined by podcaster, musician and actor Scroobius Pip.

The SWTD podcast was the product of Dr Gage winning I’m a Scientist Get Me Outta Here, a competition run by the Wellcome Trust. The online competition involves students putting questions to scientists and judging what the scientists propose to do with the £500 prize money: Suzi pitched this idea, won the competition and the podcast was started. Dr Gage was then interviewed on Scroobius Pip’s own podcast ‘Distraction Pieces’, leading him to join SWTD. It was also here that it got its name, Say Why to Drugs: a fantastic play on the anti-drugs campaign ‘Say No to Drugs’ that was funded by the Church of Scientology.

The format of the podcast is simple: the drug is introduced and its appeal is discussed, Dr Gage then works through straight facts about what is known about the drug and its effects, before exploring myths. Watersheds do not exist with podcast, so there’s freedom that other forms of media don’t allow. With this controversial topic, that’s a necessity. Some podcasts are edited so that you listen to a rehearsed show, but SWTD retains its conversational authenticity. This works well: with drugs education, the last thing you want to hear is something that feels forced, or adults telling kids what to do. It is laid-back, raw and unedited.

Say Why to Drugs has an instant appeal; it has a relaxed atmosphere with two dynamic hosts. You feel like you are listening in on a conversation between friends. Dr Gage’s academic stance is complemented by Scroobius Pip’s relentless interest; he asks the questions that the layperson would, which makes the content accessible to a wide audience. Scroobius Pip’s past drug use is discussed on the podcast, but he no longer takes any substance; he only drinks alcohol once or twice a month (primarily for his drunk podcast: DrunkCast). The mix of these two perspectives gives the podcast’s message more credibility.

My favourite episode is the one on alcohol. Dr Gage describes how alcohol receives special treatment in the UK by not often being referred to as a drug: even in academia the field is referred to as ‘Drugs and Alcohol’. After discussing the appeal, they then talked about how ingrained alcohol use is in society, to the extent that it can be a surprise to people if someone abstains. This is a really important point to raise in a podcast aimed at young people, as it highlights the value of choosing to drink (or not drink), regardless of peer or social pressure. It led me to think about my own drinking and whether I make an active decision.

In the ‘myth-busting section, Dr Gage explains how a myth can be built from a body of research and explains how to critically analyse results. She describes what to look out for in research, to be sceptical, and not to take research at face-value. It’s a theme she returns to in most of the episodes. This is brilliant: she doesn’t just bust a myth by telling listeners that it is wrong, but she explains why, and that provides listeners with the tools to repeat the analysis to other papers and articles. Making young people think and critique information that is given to them is not only great for future researchers, it’s a valuable life skill. Add to this the fact that links are attached to the audio file so that you can explore the research: the podcast then serves as a gateway to the world of drug research that isn’t printed on the front of tabloids.

The podcast has won Skeptic magazine’s Ockham Award, and had over 200,000 downloads. There is clearly an audience for this refreshing outlook on drugs education. I personally would have loved this resource in drugs education at school; it is a stark contrast to the police turning up with a briefcase of drugs advocating that drugs are evil. My experience was neither informative nor frightening. Both Dr Gage and Scroobius Pip have had feedback from parents and teachers who have introduced the podcast to their children or students, and there are potential plans to create a learning resource for schools.

The podcast may not be for everyone: it does not delve too deeply into each drug so perhaps the level of content is too low for some. But SWTD is both unique and necessary, an unbiased, fact-based drugs podcast. I hope it inspires more podcasts and learning resources promoting the same ethos.

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Reviewed by Elle Wadsworth, a Research Assistant at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience

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