One in three 14-year-olds has taken illegal drugs

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MORE THAN a third of children aged 14 and 15 admit to taking illegal drugs, a conference will be told this week.

A survey carried out in Manchester and Merseyside schools last autumn suggests a sharp increase in the number of young people using narcotics; previous studies found that the proportion was far lower.

Girls were more likely to take drugs than boys. At one school, 61 per cent of the pupils questioned admitted they had used drugs. Cannabis is the most widely used; young people do not regard it as a 'proper' drug and, researchers say, its use has almost become 'normalised'.

The Alcohol and Offending Research Project also found that 30 per cent of schoolchildren drank the equivalent of four pints of beer every week.

Anonymous questionnaires were completed by 776 pupils at eight schools, half of them in middle-class areas. Researchers discount adolescent bravado as an explanation for the answers because they included trick questions to flush out the liars. If anything, they say, the figures are an underestimate because truants, usually among the highest drug users, were not questioned.

According to the survey, 59 per cent of the pupils had been offered drugs, and 36 per cent had tried them. Of the drug users, 32 per cent had taken cannabis; 14 per cent 'poppers', containing alkyl nitrites, a type of solvent; 13 per cent LSD; 12 per cent solvents; 10 per cent 'magic mushrooms'; 10 per cent amphetamine sulphate or Speed; six per cent Ecstasy. Hardly any, however, had taken cocaine or heroin. Many girls sniffed hair spray.

Dr Russell Newcombe of Manchester University, who carried out the survey with Professor Howard Parker and Fiona Measham, said: 'Drug use in this age group appears to be more than twice as high as previous surveys of children who are a year or so older. Cannabis is particularly widespread - many youngsters do not consider this a proper drug or taking it an offence. It appears to have become accepted and has become 'normalised'.'

The Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, using a survey carried out in 1989, had estimated that about 10 per cent of 14 and 15-year-olds took drugs, mostly cannabis and solvents.

Details of the survey - funded by the Alcohol Education and Research Trust - will be presented on Friday at the Health in Europe conference in Edinburgh. A report will be published next year.

The quantity of alcohol consumed by those surveyed was also higher than in many previous studies of the same age group. About 30 per cent drank at least once a week. And on average they drank about eight units of alcohol - four pints of lager or eight gins - each session. Girls drank only slightly less than boys.

Boys mainly drank beer, lager and cider, while girls preferred wine, spirits and aperitifs. Both sexes were particularly partial to Diamond White strong cider and Thunderbird wine.

Only 14 per cent never drank, mainly for religious reasons.

Asked about their sexual experiences, 46 per cent said they had done 'more than kissing'. Twenty four per cent had had sexual intercourse. Of these, 62 per cent had had intercourse without a condom on at least one occasion.