Cannabis Campaign: Drop the stereotypes, then we'll see progress

Until we understand how young people use drugs, their misuse will continue to be a mystery, says Dr Helen Perry of Demos
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Young drug users are anti-establishment and anti-social," and, "British youth has never been in greater need of old-fashioned moral stiffening." What sets these two statements apart? Very little, except their source - the former is from a report by the Home Office and the latter from a leader written by a tabloid newspaper in response to research carried out by Demos into the place of drugs in young people's lives, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this week. On the other hand, there are equally stark proclamations from crude libertarians, such as Howard Marks, who advocate legalisation and suggest parents and children should experiment together with illicit drugs.

The drugs debate in Britain is hopelessly polarised. Neither extreme is helpfully to inform attempts to deal with drugs misuse in Britain. Our report sought to define a new foundation for the drugs debate, based on a clear understanding of how young people decide to use - or not - a whole range of drugs, both legal and illegal.

Overcoming the current polarisation of the drugs debate would place Britain in an exceptional position, historically and internationally. But our research indicates that before anysuch revolution is achieved, two key myths about young people and drugs need to be debunked.

First, a widely held view of young people is that, in general they use drugs. And indeed, according to some surveys, 50 per cent or so of young people report having tried drugs at least once. But this figure wraps up young people who try drugs only once, or use them intermittently or recreationally, with those who are problem drug users. By lumping all young drug users together, the fact that the vast majority of young people who use drugs recreationally "mature out" in the their mid- to late-20s is lost. The remaining 50 per cent of young people have never tried drugs.

Second, a widely-held view of young drug users is that they are in some way weaker and more easily influenced than their non-using peers. Yet our research found that those who use drugs recreationally are much like young people in general - they trust and respect their families, have aspirations for the future and maintain that out-of-control behaviour is unacceptable.

In most areas of Britain, drugs are integrated in the patterns of leisure available to the young. But that is not to say that drugs and drug use are necessarily the dominant feature in young people's lives. Both using and not using drugs can be part of a young person's statement of independence. So, contrary to the peer pressure argument, a young person from a deprived region such as the Manchester area of Wythenshawe, where problem drug use is widespread, is as likely to make a statement of individual identity by not using drugs, as a peer in a more affluent area is to express such individualism by trying drugs.

Most young people are not interested in spending their evenings out of their heads on street corners. Equally, though, many are struggling with the reality that, in some areas, there is little else to do. The challenge for policy makers is to understand and acknowledge that young people who use drugs recreationally see themselves as having made a choice about their leisure time, and so are otherwise not particularly different from their non-drug-using peers.

Programmes which aim to stigmatise young drug users tend to push young people away from policy-makers and active engagement in British civic life. Stigmatisation reduces young people's willingness to contribute to drugs safety and avoidance campaigns, let alone to contribute to wider, important debates about life in Britain. Until the reality of young people's attitudes and behaviour are understood, the opportunity to establish a constructive and results-oriented approach to drugs misuse in Britain is limited.

Most importantly, by allowing the drugs debate to ossify into a simple polarisation between arguments for enforcement versus legalisation, nothing has been achieved beyond, at best, the disengagement and, at worst, the alienation of British youth. The truth is that both sides have got it wrong - not least from the perspective of young people.

! 'The substance of youth: the place of drugs in young people's lives today', by Perri 6, Ben Jupp, Helen Perry and Kristen Lasky, is published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, price pounds 11.95. Copies can be ordered from JRF on 01904 629 241.