Teenage drug abusers 'being failed by system'

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Teenagers who run into trouble with drugs are being abandoned by health chiefs, according to a report by the NHS Health Advisory Service.

Current services present a "gloomy picture" where there is a lack of knowledge of the scale of the problem and shortage of specialist treatments for those most at risk.

Drug use is now so widespread among teenagers that such behaviour cannot be seen as abnormal, according to Keith Hellawell, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, who helped launch the report, The Substance of Young Needs. He said that if present trends continue, 80 per cent of 10-year- olds will have been involved in drugs in some way by 2005.

Home Office figures show the number of notified drug addicts under 21 increased from 1,501 in 1990 to 2,231 in 1993.

The study says there is a lack of recognition by health professionals of teenagers' needs. Services are poorly planned and co-ordinated - developing in an "isolated, uneven, patchy and idiosyncratic manner".

Specialised treatment is extremely limited because of a range of factors including lack of understanding of the problem, lack of basic information about services and disputes over funding. Staff are said to have little knowledge or formal training about issues of confidentiality or consent.

The report by the NHS Health Advisory Service, a non-departmental public body, makes a clear distinction between experimental use of drugs and addiction.

While the service does not support legalisation of drugs, it also says that experimentation alone cannot be seen as indicative of personal disorders. Misuse is defined as use that is harmful, dependent use or the use of substances as part of a wider spectrum of problematic or harmful behaviour.

The report warns: "Given the fragmentary and, in some areas, non-existence of services for young people ... there are considerable challenges to be overcome before there will be appropriate provision."