Nearly half of Britain's 16-year-olds have taken drugs for recreation, writes Jojo Moyes. So, is that a problem?
Stephen, 21, counts out his money. Should he go for a couple of Es, with an amyl nitrate booster, followed by Temazepam to wind down at the end of the evening? Or should he go for the methamphetamine, which is cheaper, followed by a couple of joints? Forty miles up the motorway, in a car borrowed from 18-year-old Juliet's parents, a decision has already been made. Juliet and three friends are sharing a handful of white tablets. Tonight's choice is Dove - a brand of Ecstasy tablet.

Scenes like this are played out up and down the country every weekend. This is the "pick 'n' mix" generation. For them, drugs are not proscribed or mysterious, but as commonplace as beer was for their parents.

Maxine, a 21-year-old trainee teacher, is typical. She smokes cannabis during the week to "wind down" and varies her drug intake at weekends.

"I don't do heavy drugs in the week because I have to be together for the kids," she says. "But at weekends we'll spend quite a lot - maybe £40 each. Like the other night: we went to this club and I was really knackered so I dropped an E and then had a half and some sulph [amphetamine] later on so I could stay up. But if we're going to a party, we might just do some coke. Sometimes we get a load of mates round and we'll do some mushrooms or acid. I wouldn't do that in a club. And I didn't do E for aboutsix months because I wasn't happy about what they were cutting it with."

But if the downside is impurity, the upside is cost-effectiveness. "If I have a night out in the West End [of London], I have to pay £2.50 each time I have a beer," says Stephen. "At the end of the night you're broke and you feel awful. You've spent £30.For that much I can get two Es and a tab of acid."

Fiona Measham, a researcher at Manchester University, has spent four years investigating drug consumption among the young, helping to compile three annual surveys of teenage drug use and observing users first-hand at raves and nightclubs. She describes apattern of "poly-drug use", through which consumers achieve the right effects at the right time. Maxine and Stephen, she says, are par for the course.

"One feature of this generation is the normalisation and consumerisation of drug use," she says. "They make relatively sophisticated cost benefit analyses about the drugs they buy. One of the things we've noticed in rave clubs is the complex pattern of drugs being taken. Young people I speak to are quite able to say how much you should have and in what combinations.

"They might start with E [Ecstasy], amphetamine or Ice [Metamphetamine - a longer-lasting version of speed]. Then they might use poppers [amyl nitrate] to boost whatever else they're on, then have cannabis to chill out. Then tranquillisers at the end of the night. Sophisticated choices," she says.

That sophistication extends to a willingness to shop around. Eternity, a dance magazine, recently conducted a sort of Which guide to E tablets which showed which brands were reliable.

"There is a brand of E called Dove which is thought to be the most reliable, so people ask for a Dove rather than an E," says Measham." LSD is branded with logos like Batman or Bart Simpson. It's their own kind of quality control."

And sales are up. A 1994 Manchester University survey of drug use among 15 to 16-year-olds showed that 71 per cent of the 750 people interviewed had been offered drugs. Nearly half (47 per cent) had tried them - cannabis in 41 per cent of cases. These figures are much higher than those recorded during the 1980s among this age group.

According to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the use of synthetic drugs such as Ecstasy is on the increase. Customs and Excise Seizure figures released this month show record amounts of Ecstasy were seized in 1994 - enough to make 2.3 milliontablets, an increase of 88 per cent on 1993.

But cannabis is still the most widely used drug among young people. They are increasingly likely to have been exposed to it before they have left school. Home Office figures in 1993 for drug seizures show that seizures of cannabis were up by 20 per cent,while seizure rates for all drugs rose by 19 per cent to 86,000.

Not all young people take drugs, but nearly all the young people I spoke to - more than 50 of them - said they were aware that drugs were on offer at their schools. "I went to college in south London and you could get [drugs] quite easily," said one girl. "You see people talking in corridors who go quiet as you walk past. They're talking about how much they're going to buy."

"It's going round in my school," said another. How could she be sure? "You smell it in the classrooms."

Young women are increasingly likely to take drugs, some attracted to the appetite-suppressant qualities of synthetic drugs. But geography is a better indicator of the types of drugs they use than class or race, due to the prevalence of different kinds ofclub and club music.

Speed is most popular on the hardcore rave scene, says Ms Measham, while at Jungle raves, which are common in London and the Midlands, crack, Ecstasy and cannabis are more favoured.

"If I do an E, then I can stay out dancing till five in the morning" says Maxine. "It means I get a proper weekend. I'm so tired by the end of the week that I'd probably just crash out otherwise. On Sunday I get myself straight for Monday."

Paul Watson, a drugs counsellor at the Lifeline Project in Manchester, says there are many reasons why drugs have become an integral part of life for today's young. It is rare to find someone between 15 and 25 who does not count pubbing and clubbing as asignificant part of recreational life. "It's about celebration - the young want to celebrate their independence," he says. "Young people have always rebelled. They're no worse morally than they used to be."

Parents assume their children are on the road to junkiedom and death if they discover them smoking a joint, he adds. Young drug users reject this, and are scornful of their parents ignorance - both about what they take and drug use in general.

"I don't tell my parents," says Juliet. "They just say don't start on cannabis because you'll end up a heroin addict. But all I do is smoke and take Es."

Juliet's stance has some official backing. Drugs and Young People, a paper published last December by the Institute for Public Policy Research, shows that most drug arrests involve cannabis: 41,400 offenders in 1992, compared with 1,900 for heroin. The paper argues that government policy on controlling illegal drugs is based on prejudice and outdated morality. For instance, the predicted epidemic of highly addictive crack cocaine has failed to materialise, while the number of registered drug addicts is actually rising at a slower rate than in recent years, suggesting that addiction is not an inevitable result of an increase in recreational drug use.

"You have to go beyond `Just Say No' " says Mr Watson. "Look at the social conditions people are surviving in these days. If you're unemployed and can't claim benefit and you're living in a tower block and someone says drugs are going to make you feel good... " And yet, he adds, young people from all sectors of society use drugs. It is just that the drugs they use differ according to their financial capabilities.

Talk honestly at any length with the "pick 'n' mix" kids and you get the feeling that drug use among this age group is unlikely to decrease. All those I spoke to had tried some form of drug. Nearly all said that they had been introduced to them at an average age of 15. Continuing use of drugs, perhaps like the previous generation, appeared to depend on their social life. "I'll probably stop doing E and stuff when I stop going to clubs," says Stephen. "But I should think I'll always have the odd spliff, just because it helps you relax." Few considered their drug use to be problematic.

At a club in central London where leather-clad bouncers walk round handing out ice pops to ensure that clubbers do not get "overheated" - one of the more dangerous side effects of Ecstasy - Maxine snorts at the idea that her health is in danger.

"I go to the gym twice a week, I don't smoke and I don't drink much. As far as drugs go, it's everything in moderation. Nothing I take is really addictive. I can always tell if I'm doing too much because I my skin gets really bad. Then I leave it alone for a month or so."

Stephen is more circumspect. "If I do stuff, I'm guaranteed a good night. You just enjoy yourself. Sometimes I do worry about it. I've woken up on Sundays and felt really crap. But it's not like I'm doing heroin every day. Besides, I could be hit by a bus."

Still, many of those I spoke to were surprisingly ignorant about the legal aspects of drugs. Many pool together to buy drugs, not realising that whoever collects them can be prosecuted for "possession with intent to supply".

Although a few described the illegality as an attraction, mostcalled it an "irritation", aware that they are exploited by dealers and unable to ensure quality.

"I've got one guy I buy stuff off," says Maxine. "If he's not around, I have to buy from people at clubs and I hate that. You can't see what you're getting and unless you have someone you trust, you're really in the dark."

Last February, the Home Secretary announced the introduction of tougher penalties for the possession of soft drugs such as cannabis. Fines were to be increased from £500 to £2,500 in an amendment to the Criminal Justice Act. This, some argue, will lead to the creation of a whole new criminal class.

"Michael Howard is going to create a criminal group among young people," Measham argues. "If we've found by school leaving age that so many people have taken drugs, what does it mean for the criminal justice system? Do they want to clog it up with young people?"

Stephen, pocketing this week's selection of brightly coloured pills, agrees. "People are always going to take drugs," he says. "The difference with us is that we'd rather do a couple of pills than act like beer monsters." He laughs. "Everyone needs to get off their face occasionally."