Exchanging Prevention practices on Polydrug use among youth in Criminal justice systems (EPPIC)

January 2017 – February 2020, funded by European Commission Health Programme, Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency (CHAFEA)

Aim: The EPPIC project aimed to identify principles of good practice on interventions to prevent illicit drug use among young people (aged 14−25) in touch with the criminal justice system in European countries; to elaborate guidelines for practice; and to initiate a European exchange network of relevant stakeholders.


  • To collect and disseminate existing knowledge and new data on evidence for effective approaches and interventions to address illicit drug use
  • To analyse the potential for interventions and different innovative approaches to influence drug-using trajectories among young people in touch with the criminal justice system
  • To examine the appropriateness of the existing European drug prevention quality standards to the criminal justice context and develop a set of guidelines adapted to initiatives aimed at drug-using young people in touch with criminal justice agencies
  • To assess the extent to which intervention models are transferable across countries and cultures
  • To set up dissemination mechanisms for knowledge exchange and collaboration between relevant stakeholders at local, national and international levels

Key findings:

  • Young people in touch with criminal justice systems experience a complex range of interrelated problems, that include drug use, mental health issues, disrupted and problematic family backgrounds, including substance use in the family, social problems such as low educational attainment, lack of training and employment, unsettled accommodation and episodes of homelessness.
  • Factors increasing drug use reported by the young people can be grouped in three main intersecting categories: life context, life events, and the inherent properties of substances. Peer influence and coping with adverse circumstances are the predominant explanations given by young people themselves.
  • The complex nature of problems experienced by young people have implications for intervention responses in that, to be effective, interventions cannot focus on drug use or criminal behaviour alone. The importance of dealing with complex problems was acknowledged by practitioners working with this target group.
  • There is a general shift in all partner countries towards diverting young people out of the criminal justice system. However, some law enforcement agents tend to underutilise the possibilities of diversion from criminal procedures and apply penal sanctions. Delivery of interventions within criminal justice systems is problematic in that it has negative consequences both on individual young people and on response systems.
  • There are few prevention interventions aimed at this target group; projects are frequently transitory, and few are evaluated. Practitioners generally agreed with the ideal of adopting a partnership, collaborative and integrated, holistic approach to service provision but reported many challenges and barriers to achieving that aim.
  • Young people valued interventions that were timely and accessible; were based on respectful, non-judgemental, caring relationships with practitioners they could trust; recognised young people’s need to be autonomous and have a voice in the intervention approaches; included staff with ‘lived experience’, used peer mentor approaches, and provided relevant medical and psychiatric care, psychological and social services; offered meaningful activities, such as education, training or employment; had broad prevention/ intervention goals that included harm reduction.
  • Transfer of intervention models/ approaches always need adaptation to address the specific context, target group and wider cultural/ systems factors.
  • Quality standards provide guidelines for practitioners, which, if implemented, would be expected to increase the quality of interventions for young people and minimise the burden of drug use and related problems among this target group.

Research team: Joint PI: Betsy Thom and Karen Duke (Middlesex University). Co-applicants:

Austria: Günter Stummvoll, European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research; Denmark: Vibeke Asmussen Frank, Aarhus University; Germany: Heino Stöver, Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences; Italy: Franca Beccaria, Eclectica; Poland: Jacek Moskalewicz, Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology; UK: Raj Ubhi, Change Grow Live.

Contact: Betsy Thom, b.thom@mdx.ac.uk and Karen Duke, k.duke@mdx.ac.uk

Methods: Qualitative