When former kirk Moderator John Miller stands in the main chamber of Scotland's parliament and announces the prevailing sentiment among the kids in his community is "shit happens", you're entitled to hope this conference will not be merely a worthy rerun of many gatherings fretting about Scotland's drug and alcohol abuse.

When Tom Wood, once one of Scotland's senior police chiefs, goes on to assert that macho politicians' posturing is a surefire recipe for heat over enlightenment and that the Misuse of Drugs Act is not fit for contemporary purpose, you begin to believe this second Futures Forum project will have no particular appetite for recycling platitudes.

Both men were preceded by Professor Tony King, who chairs the RSA commission on illegal drugs due to report in March. And while King was inevitably coy on the detail, it was evident that his team had also found it impossible to separate out the damage done on the illegal side of the substance-abuse fence from the stuff legitimately retailed from which the Exchequer takes a tidy tax cut.

The statistics tell their own dispiriting story; 60,000 children affected by parental drug use, but 100,000 by alcohol. Messrs Miller and Wood talk from sharp-end experience in Scotland. Miller remembered when the first drug death in his Castlemilk parish stunned the young man's peer group, who flocked to the funeral. Now, he notes, the only users still regarded as addicts are those unsophisticated enough to get their hit on the end of a needle. Now three generations cosily share their cocaine. Now the annual Flowers on the Railings ceremony in Castlemilk allows the community publicly to mourn the carnage of young deaths from illness, accident and abuse.

Wood warns that effecting high-profile "rescues" of kids with dependent parents will probably stick them in a care system likely to cause them just as much long-term damage. He warns, too, that we fulminate over "drugs deaths" at our ignorant peril; these days the lethal dosage of choice is likely to be a cocktail of drugs plus booze.

That yesterday's event was well oversubscribed speaks volumes for the extent of the problem; one exacerbated by this nation spending so long in denial over how it uses alcohol and who it delegates to deal with drugs. Can the forum raise the level of the debate from short-term sloganeering to long-term culture change?

Judging by what we heard yesterday, only if a number of pretty jaggy nettles are firmly grasped. One is a sea change from looking at the challenges only through a criminal justice perspective. Substance abuse damages physical and mental health, employment prospects and family life, and the response has to be community-led.

John Miller, a mild-mannered man, flagged up two barriers to this: short-term annual funding for the groups making a difference on the ground, and the parade of external professionals plying their trade on his and similar patches. Could they please get their tanks off the locals' lawn was the subtext.

In Finland, noted Wood, funds for tackling these social ills are dispersed by one strong Communities Department. Compare and contrast his own home territory in Edinburgh with projects scrabbling for crumbs from eight different funding cakes.

Ironically, the Scottish Parliament has acknowledged the need for three-year funding; it's trying to prise local-council fingers from the purse strings that seems to be prolonging the blockages. But it's not all about resources. We have to find a national cure for jerking-knee syndrome; for demanding instant action on the back of individual tragedies. We have to screen out the cacophony of voices convinced that theirs is the one true path to kicking our habits. We have to wean politicians and journalists off not letting the research get in the way of a good headline.

When Glasgow Caledonian University matter-of-factly noted that there was a cohort of heroin users combining drug use with a stable life style, the reaction was so frenzied you might have supposed they'd advocated nursery needle exchanges.

Somehow, the Futures Forum (which will have the benefit of the RSA report, the collective experience of yesterday's 200-plus delegates, extensive input from Scotland's communities and access to global research) must tread a path that deals in facts and screens out cherished prejudices. It has to find a balance between acknowledging the scale of our collective task, without allowing wholesale pessimism to blunt the appetite for innovation.

The reality pill we have to swallow is that drugs and alcohol are, and will remain, part of society. Pretend that's not so and you swiftly lose your audience. So we have to construct a strategy for the next generation to be using them rather than the other way round.