One in 10 pre-teens has used drugs

Youngsters at risk: Study sounds new alarm as experimentation becomes 'part and parcel of ordinary life'
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A SECOND generation of drug users is being created by parents who encourage their children as young as 11 or under to experiment with cannabis, ecstasy and even heroin. When youngsters might once have been offered a sip of beer or wine in the home, they are now being passed a joint.

Parents, siblings and family friends are the main source of drugs for young children, according to Glasgow University researchers who found one in 10 children in Scotland had tried illegal drugs, usually cannabis, by the age of 12.

The findings mirror experience in England, where surveys show the average age of users getting younger over the past decade. Figures for 1997 show 3 per cent of boys and 2 per cent of girls aged 11 to 12 have tried drugs.

Since 1987, there has been a sixfold increase in drug- taking by young people, with two out of five up to the age of 16 saying they have tried at least one illegal substance. The annual surveys by the Schools Health Education Unit in Exeter show the proportion of 12 and 13-year-olds with experience of drugs in 1996 was greater than that of 15 and 16-year-olds in 1987.

The disclosure of drug- taking in Scotland came as three boys were under observation after taking tablets, believed to be ecstasy, at a house in Largs, Ayrshire. Police warned other youngsters who may have obtained the suspect tablets circulating in the area.

The boys, aged 13, 14 and 15, were taken to hospital on Sunday after one of their mothers became worried. Hospital staff said the 15-year- old had been "very serious" on Monday.

However, drug-taking by children far younger than the Largs boys is "part and parcel of ordinary life" in many families, according to the Glasgow University Centre for Drug Misuse Research.

In a typical class of about 30 11-year-olds, three will have used drugs such as cannabis, temazapam and even heroin. More than 900 pupils at 22 schools were interviewed during the two-year study, funded by the Scottish Office.

With schools in drug-abuse "hot-spots" in Glasgow and Edinburgh deliberately avoided, the study showed drug-taking to be common across all social classes.

Neil McKeganey, who led the research, dismissed as a myth the idea of children being sold drugs by strangers hanging around school gates. "There undoubtedly are instances where children are being encouraged into using illegal drugs by parents."

The findings were "alarming", Professor McKeganey said, with children using many of the drugs hitherto associated with those in their mid-teens. Of children who admitted using drugs, 79 per cent had tried cannabis, 27 per cent "magic mushrooms", 15 per cent LSD, 10 per cent ecstasy and 6 per cent heroin.

Many had experimented with more than one drug. One boy said he started smoking cannabis when he was nine years old and had since tried amphetamines and Valium. A 13-year-old said he and friends smoked cannabis when they were 10 and still enjoyed it. "It calms you down ... you don't worry about anything." Another related how he saved his pocket money and dinner money to buy cannabis.

Professor McKeganey, a member of the multi-agency greater Glasgow drugs team, said counsellors must work more closely with teachers to tackle the problem.

"At present our drugs expertise is focused on the older age range and the drugs services are probably the last place you would take an 11 or 12-year-old."

Surveys in England by the Schools Health Education Unit in Exeter show children from middle-class backgrounds and rural areas are the most likely to experiment with drugs, usually cannabis and ecstasy, with a quarter involved by the time they reach 15.

John Balding, director of the unit, said: "Most of the time youngsters follow the behaviour of those close to them - their family and friends. I would hate to think of parents pushing drugs at their children - it's horrific. But I can see it happening in the same way they might encourage them to drink."

Ron Alexander, a spokesman for the Turning Point drugs agency in London, said: "In some cases ... the whole family is at it. That's the sad thing. A lot of children are growing up in homes where drugs are as common as porridge."

The Government White Paper on drugs, published earlier this year, includes plans to extend education about drugs to primary-school children.

Keith Hellawell, the Government's anti-drugs co-ordinator, said children as young as five should be taught the dangers of drugs.

"There is no evidence to support the argument that more knowledge encourages drug misuse. So I believe that schoolchildren should receive appropriate drugs education from the age of five."

Scotland Against Drugs said an initiative was under way to address the problem though schools.

Teachers were receiving special training to pass on the message to children from five upwards.

Detective Superintendent Barry Dougall, Strathclyde's drugs co-ordinator, said the study confirmed much anecdotal evidence. "Where children are watching parents take drugs and being handed drugs it becomes very difficult for the police and for professional educationalists to intervene."

Enforcement had a role, but the main thrust was education about the risks, he said.