Our government has invested a lot of its social and moral capital in the war on drugs. Increased funding for anti-drug programmes, treatment and rehabilitation has wide community support. Some of it, however, is being spent on voluntary testing in schools, a controversial initiative that is both problematic and potentially divisive. This has prompted experts and commentators, including this newspaper, to argue that the way forward is through education. Understandably, this strikes many as a well-meaning response to a global problem that lacks a sense of urgency. The approach elsewhere - zero tolerance combined with rehabilitation - has influenced attitudes here. It is encouraging therefore to come across a five-year study conducted by five of our universities, and soon to be published in the Scientific World Journal, that suggests there might really be something in this education idea.
The study tracked teenagers who have taken part in a secondary school programme stressing positive aspects of their lives - and those who have not. Researchers have kept track of some 6,000 students in 43 schools since the first programme finished in 2009. They found that those who did not take part were 47 per cent more likely to use drugs, on average, than those who did. At Form Three level, according to principal investigator Dr Shek Tan-lei, the use of ketamine and cannabis was two and four times higher respectively. Students in the programme were also only half as likely to drink and smoke.
Of course, it can be argued that we need to know more about the two groups. Students less predisposed towards drugs, alcohol and tobacco by family and social background, educational motivation and peer relationships may be more likely to join something that goes by the name of Project Paths - Positive Adolescent Training through Holistic Social programmes, than those more at risk.
But how did they go about it? The core elements included the importance of making good friends and ways of dealing with stress and maintaining a positive attitude about the future. Students were asked to think in unconventional ways - for example by writing a declaration for a future partner about what values they uphold.
It all sounds too easy, given the failure of decades-old policies of prohibition. But open and interactive discussion and reasoning has an important role in preparing teenagers for a world awash with drugs. Moreover, it is consistent with the introduction of liberal studies in the secondary curriculum. After all, the most important contribution schools can make is what they do best - education. On moral issues they have a responsibility to reinforce family values. Communication and understanding between parents, schools and children - and the trust this engenders - is the right foundation for an anti-drug culture.