Tonight my thoughts will go out to the young people of a small mill town just outside Manchester. There is nothing particularly special about them, nothing that differentiates them from the vast majority of other teenagers and young adults. They have the same hopes and aspirations, fears and doubts, they look and behave just as you would imagine.

And this normality makes them worthy of consideration. Because tonight a substantial number of them, according to a survey conducted by Manchester University, will take recreational drugs. Particularly marijuana, but also amphetamines and possibly Ecstasy and LSD. Just like young people the length and breadth of the country, in fact.

According to the survey, conducted by Professor Howard Parker, more young people are taking more drugs than ever before. Ten years ago, a similar survey showed 20 per cent of the sample had tried street drugs. His latest results indicate nearly 50 per cent have experimented with illegal substances. Nearly three-quarters of those questioned had been offered drugs, and 33 per cent classified themselves as regular users; 2 per cent admitted to having taken LSD.

'This generation has a different view of drugs, and doesn't see them as being different from alcohol and tobacco,' said Professor Parker, speaking last week on Public Eye, a BBC 2 documentary. This modest little film addressed one of the most important issues we have to face: the burgeoning underground drug culture and how it will affect our future. Yet it went almost unnoticed and unremarked.

The programme also interviewed some of the young people who had participated in the survey. Their frankness was at once shocking and endearing. 'You have a spliff and everything seems to just mellow out,' said a working-class lad in broad Lancastrian tones. Mellow out? He could not have been more than 17 years old. At his age, my friends and I would drink eight pints before starting a fight with some sailors in the Chinese take-away.

Another young man put the pragmatist's view. 'It does work out cheaper than beer,' he said, almost surprised at his own findings. 'Especially if yer mates chip in wi'yer. It works out about pounds 1 each. Nothing.' His friend nodded in agreement, adding, 'And one good joint can keep you mellow all day.' That word again. I came over all fatherly towards these wonderful kids, but what about hard drugs such as heroin? 'To me that's really scruffy, dirty,' said another lad. Fashion, peer pressure and working-class ethics seemed to have warded off the dreaded H-word.

The icing on the cake was Commander John Grieve, head of criminal intelligence, Metropolitan Police. 'I've probably busted more dealers than anyone else in the country, I've probably seen enough dope to sink a battleship,' he said. 'But I haven't seen the situation get any better.' A copper using the vernacular without sounding ludicrous is a bonus, but the jackpot came when he was asked about the 'war on drugs'.

'I don't use the word 'war', it's not an appropriate metaphor,' he said. 'This is a social problem that society can resolve. I don't approve of wars. I'm a police officer.' I nearly fell off the chaise- longue: this geezer has been reading my mail, I thought.

Now Lord Woolf, while savaging the latest 'law and order' smokescreen thrown up by the Tory right, advocates the reform of our anachronistic drug laws. Perhaps he has already realised what the Manchester University survey clearly indicates: that the underground drug culture in this country is growing rapidly - so fast, in fact, that it will soon be overground. If nearly half of the nation's youth is experimenting with drugs, and if we accept the strong probability that more will experiment later in life, pretty soon most adults in this country will have used drugs. Surely this necessitates a more sophisticated response than building more prisons and securing more convictions, which would seem to be the limit of the Home Secretary's thinking on the subject.

Or, as Professor Parker says: 'If half our sample have tried drugs, if you don't accept it, what are you doing? You are saying goodbye to this generation.' Parents must ask themselves if they wish their children to be criminalised. The police are clearly distancing themselves from an increasingly untenable situation - more than half of those arrested for possession of soft drugs, according to the latest Home Office figures, were let off with a caution or no further action was taken.

Of course, we could just leave things the way they are and go on fighting some phoney 'drug war' invented by a half-witted American president. In which case we had better build those prisons fast. If we leave the control of drugs to organised crime much longer, then pretty soon our relatively harmless drug culture, based on the consumption of mild hallucinogenic drugs, will be replaced by the far more lucrative narcotics industry that riddles America's cities, and the side-effects that come with it.

I just hope none of those kids gets busted tonight, that's all.