CHILDREN / Parental agony and the Ecstasy: Teenage drug abuse is on the increase. Angela Neustatter reports on a habit it is better to understand than punish

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'I'VE TRIED acid a couple of times. I quite often get Ecstasy when I go to a club, and my friends and I smoke spliffs (dope) to relax us. It breaks down the barriers so we can really say what we want to each other.' Maggie, 19, a trainee dancer, started taking drugs when she was 17, along with a group of her friends.

Nick Moore, now 22 and working as a host to a computer role-play game, began smoking marijuana as a 15-year-old at a London public school where, he says, many children smoked it and some used other drugs as well. 'I became too fond of smoking. I did it all the time, worked to make money to pay for the stuff. I went on to try other drugs.'

Lesley, 17, a secretary, is surprised at the question. 'Of course I've tried drugs and so have all my friends. My parents would hit the roof if they knew, and I'd be scared of what they would do. But it's unrealistic to expect me never to touch drugs when everyone else is trying them and having the experience. So I just do all I can to keep it from my parents.'

Most parents share the view of writer Andrew Duncan, father of Ben, 20, Hamish, 16 and Nancy, 10, who says: 'I know my children have been offered drugs, but I don't believe they have taken them. I think I would be able to spot it, and although it sounds smug I believe I have a good enough relationship with them that they would tell me.'

There is a good chance he is wrong. The Youth Lifestyles 1993 report, published last month, found almost a third of the sample of 15- to 24-year-olds had taken drugs and a quarter of these had used hard drugs. The 'dramatic increase' since 1989 (when only 16 per cent admitted drug use) is supported by Dr Russell Newcombe of Manchester University. He has been studying drug use among children in the North-west over the past 10 years, and last year began a study in south Manchester and Merseyside of 800 teenagers aged 14-15. 'There has been a steady rise in drug use among the young,' he confirms. 'We believe that as many as 40 per cent of 16-year-olds may be taking drugs in the North-west.'

Further evidence comes from a health study begun at Exeter University in 1987, which is monitoring 25,000 children. Its figures show that the percentage of users has doubled nationally every two years. In 1989, 11 per cent of boys and 9 per cent of girls had tried drugs in the 15-16 age group, while in 1991 the figure had risen to 23 per cent of boys and 21 per cent of girls.

In the first stage of Dr Newcombe's study it was found that 32 per cent of 14 to 15-year-olds were using cannabis, 14 per cent were on poppers, such as amyl nitrite, 13 per cent were using LSD, 12 per cent solvents, and 6 per cent Ecstasy. Only a few had tried heroin and crack.

Nick agrees that hard drugs are 'beyond the conscience' of his drug-taking friends; and other teenagers I interviewed said they would not take these. Dealers face tough competition in the drugs market: spliff (hashish), strawberry, banana, M25 (LSD), whizz (amphetamines), Love Doves and Dennis the Menace (Ecstasy) and Charlie (cocaine) are packaged in decorated containers with bright colours or sexy illustrations.

Statistics show that nearly one in two young people tries drugs by the end of his or her teens. Dr Newcombe, among other experts, points out that drug use spans all classes, colours and types - although Asians are the least likely to experiment. Drug-takers include children from the most authoritarian to the most liberal homes, at state schools or private schools.

Drugs are easily available, from inner-city clubs and rural pubs to university campuses, the street and friends' homes. Girls, according to Dr Newcombe, are more likely to be offered drugs than boys, but there is more peer pressure on boys to use them. George, 17, and his friends are offered marijuana, Ecstasy and acid every time they go to a late-night club and frequently on the street when they are out in the evenings.

Laurie Graham, author of Teenagers - A Family Survival Guide (Chatto & Windus pounds 6.99), has four children ranging in age from 14-19. She recalls her distress when she discovered her eldest child was using drugs, and regularly getting into trouble to the extent that Laurie and her partner would have to 'bail her out at the police station'.

'The hard thing for parents,' she says, 'is to accept how prevalent drugs are and that if your teenager chooses to experiment it is out of your hands. My children had drugs education at school as well as learning through discussion with other kids and they seemed sensibly informed. So it took me by surprise when I found that, not only was my eldest using drugs, but she was getting into a mess with it. I felt completely impotent.'

Julia Melvin, mother of Lucy, 15, and Charles, 14, surely speaks for many parents when she says: 'I don't want my children to take drugs of any type. I don't understand them, and I am terrified by the idea of my children being out of control or damaging themselves.' But what can parents do? William, now 21, had his allowance withdrawn when his parents discovered marijuana in his bedroom. When they realised that that had not stopped him, they told him he would have to leave unless he promised never to take drugs again. He left home.

'I moved into a house with people who tripped regularly,' he says, 'so I began doing that as well as smoking dope. I also used cocaine when I could afford it. I got a job in a supermarket, because I couldn't afford to live otherwise - and I regret that I didn't do further education. I am now studying psychology, and although I still smoke a bit I have stopped the rest. If my parents had been a little more understanding when I was having the occasional joint, I wouldn't have made such a mess of things.'

Nick's parents used a range of drugs during the Sixties and still smoke dope on 'festive occasions'. Nick was 'not discouraged' from using marijuana, as Carol explains: 'We realised he would probably do it and I preferred the idea that it should happen at home and we could talk to him about it. It also enabled us to talk about other drugs and the ways in which they can be harmful. We were against hard drugs; we poured scorn on heroin use.'

Nick says: 'I became too fond of grass and hashish and spent all the money I could get on them; my concentration went and I did badly in my exams. I managed to get into polytechnic, but I was still very involved in the drug-taking culture. I tried most things, though never heroin or crack - but I failed to get my degree. I wish I had restrained myself, but I feel I have pulled myself round now and I'll work my life out. I'd like to blame my parents for being liberal, but I'm sure if they had tried to crack down on me it wouldn't have stopped me.'

Psychologist Elizabeth Howells works for Exploring Parenthood, an organisation which offers guidance to parents of drug users. She believes we should stop talking about prevention and look at protection. 'Teenagers will experiment and take risks,' she explains. 'It is part of developing an identity, and it can be equally worrying if a child does not do this. If we accept that children will want to try some drugs we have to look at how we can apply damage limitation. If they smoke a small amount, evidence suggests that it will not harm them and at least if you accept that and use it as a way of talking about the drug issue it can be valuable.

'If you let your children know that you trust them and respect them - and what you consider reasonable and moderate behaviour - it opens the door to a dialogue in which you can talk about the real risks. A child who feels you are not totally hostile to what they are doing is likely to listen to this.' She points out that children develop greater internalised controls when parenting is not too authoritarian or judgmental. 'But equally,' she adds, 'I would not encourage parents to join in and use drugs with their children. This can be too much like setting an 'anything goes' atmosphere.'

That said, Howells emphasises that if you realise something is wrong, and suspect your child is moving on to dangerous drugs, it may be necessary to seek help or treatment for your teenager. Signs that drugs may be a risk to health include: disruption of sleeping patterns, loss of appetite, erratic temperament, and bad performance at school.

'With drugs as with other things,' says Howells, 'we have to teach our children to look after and control themselves - and this has to do with them feeling cared for and having high self-esteem. These things have to be built in from the early days. Children are also helped by parents who are in control of their lives. If parents are worried, it would be wise to get help outside before wading in and having a blow-up with their teenagers.'

Laurie, whose daughter has moved on from her drug-taking stage, believes keeping your nerve and trying to boost your child's self-esteem is important. She also believes that 'it is no good trying to see them as hapless victims of evil drug barons. When they take drugs they are making a decision, and they need to take responsibility for that. You also have to have a cut-off point for what behaviour you will tolerate.'

Drug use is most prevalent among children who dislike school and truant, and who wish to identify with an outside peer group. Drug users are also less likely to get on with their fathers than non-users. Those who take fewer drugs tend to do things with the family, to share a social drink in the home, to enjoy school and have friends there.

One of the difficulties for parents, in Dr Newcombe's view, is that they do not know enough about drugs. They think that a couple of joints is the path to Armageddon. It is, therefore, instructive to know that heroin kills 220 people each year. The number for solvents is 150, opiates (often combined with alcohol) 70-100, amphetamines three to four, Ecstasy one to two. Some deaths are attributed to cannabis when it has been used by drivers in car accidents. There are no recorded deaths from LSD, while tobacco kills 100,000 and alcohol 30,000 annually.

Dr Newcombe advises on drug education and recognises the value of it being taught in schools. 'The best thing parents can do is learn as much as possible about drugs, about the kind of drugs sold and where the risks lie - for instance, when things like elephant tranquilliser is mixed with drugs. Organisations such as Tacade and Lifeline produce leaflets with this information and suggest the level of response appropriate if parents find a roach (stub of a joint) or a needle.

'If you consider how many people use drugs, and how many have not been harmed, it is clear that responsible drug-taking need not be the worst horror imaginable. Nor does there seem any likelihood that the young will stop using drugs. All the evidence shows that parents going berserk does not work. Understanding what is going on and being vigilant is the best protection parents can offer.'-

WHAT PARENTS CAN DO

Exploring Parenthood helpline: 081-960 1678.

Tacade: 1 Hulme Place, The Crescent, Salford M5 4QA (061- 745 8925). Publishes the booklet Young People and Drugs ( pounds 3.95), which is aimed at parents.

Lifeline: 101-103 Oldham Street, Manchester, M4 1LW (061- 839 2054). Publishes guides for parents about drugs and solvents, and a cartoon information pack for young people. It also has a drop-in centre, phone counselling service and confidential appointments.

A free advice and information service operates throughout Britain: ask the operator for Freefone Drugs Helpline.

(Photograph omitted)

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