Real Life: A junkie at Millfield: The doors of the most exclusive schools are always open to ex-addict Phil Cooper. Angela Neustatter reports
Sunday 06 March 1994
Standing before an expectant audience of 150 13 to 18- year-olds at Millfield, Cooper grins and launches into a spiel about Ecstasy. 'Great stuff isn't it? Who hasn't read the reports about how good it makes you feel, how you love everyone and have endless fun? And your friends, the people who count, have taken it and they tell you how great it is.'
Then he points to a display of press cuttings, picking out tales of youngsters who have died or been very ill after using Ecstasy. Feigning surprise, he says: 'That's not meant to happen is it? Haven't you all heard that E is safe? Or have you heard some of the less happy stories like I have? Would you know what you are buying? The other day I bought a couple of Es to see what quality they were - one was filled with worming powder, the other with crushed glass from a light bulb.'
A Department of Health report shows that children as young as 13 regularly use drugs and that dealing at school is commonplace. The DoH has just launched a pounds 2m education campaign, aimed at parents. Drugs cause huge concern in all schools, but independent schools have an additional problem. Pupils are assumed to have money and dealers focus on them with particular dedication.
Phil Cooper started taking drugs aged 11, when he was put into care by his single mother. An older child offered him amphetamines, and cannabis and barbiturates followed. By 18, he was meeting musicians who were shooting up. He began to buy and sell, was sent to prison but started again each time he came out.
It was love that broke the pattern. He met a woman who ended their relationship when she found him dealing. He managed, slowly, to give up and they got married. The marriage didn't last, but Cooper began writing poems about drugs and started to be invited into youth clubs and schools to talk about his experiences.
During the one-hour session at Millfield, Cooper touches on crack as the 'no hoper' and sketches in a few lurid tales of what he's seen, but he's more concerned to 'give them the full story' on amphetamines and LSD because these are currently popular. There's a chat about the pleasure, the heightened vision you might get from a trip, but then there's his experiences: 'hellish, terrifying nightmares from which there was no escape and which raged for hour after hour inside me.'
But what about cannabis, by far the most widely used drug among teenagers and which many people want legalised? Cooper says: 'All I know is that cannabis makes you feel good because it changes how you feel and I don't believe anything that does that is harmless. I've talked to countless students who've smoked a joint a day to 'mellow out' then felt so relaxed they had no motivation to work and failed their exams. Suddenly future plans fall apart. What about those who escape problems by being stoned all the time? And kids who develop an addiction to tobacco because they mix it with their dope? To me those are harmful effects.'
He never tells youngsters that they shouldn't take drugs. His message is, 'Get informed, know the facts and then make your decision'. But, he says, drugs have wrecked his life. 'I'm still paranoid - I have voices in my head, and waking dreams. I have severe headaches all the time. I've had
two mild heart attacks and ulcers and I don't expect to live very long.'
His audience has listened attentively, amused and bemused by turns. Ben Dunevin, 17, is sure he has learned a lot that he would never have picked up through the usual drugs education available at school. 'What Phil says makes me realise I need to think pretty hard about what drugs might do to me,' he says. Alice Faye, 17, quite likes the idea of cannabis but the fact that 'Phil seemed to be on our side but let us know that, based on his own experience, he thinks drugs are so harmful, makes you think.'
If Phil Cooper can 'make them think' then, thinks Christopher Martin, headmaster of Millfield, he is doing a good job: 'The pupils do not see him as part of our value system - something they may be rebelling against. I have no idea whether in the end Phil will have had more impact than we can, but what I have seen tells me he probably does and in these terrifying times he is a chance worth taking.'
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