Britain's Drugs Crisis: 'It's nothing unusual, people do it all the time': The child users

SARAH is 13. She takes LSD and sniffs glue and aerosols - gas lighter fuel and air fresheners are her favourites. 'It's nothing unusual, people do it all the time,' she says, writes Jason Bennetto.

Another girl of the same age who goes to school in a rural part of Cleveland recalls how she and her friends sat outside the police headquarters in her local town and smoked cannabis.

'We were walking down with the spliff (cigarette) in our hands with the police cars driving past. A policeman came past and he said 'Do you always smoke rollies?', The police knew nowt about it. We were all crapping ourselves, but laughing as well.'

These are two interviews from an unpublished report, funded by the Department of Health, into drug abuse among school children. Young People and Illicit Drugs, by Louise Ridley and Frank Coffield at Durham University, reveals widespread drug abuse among children aged 12 to 18 in northern England. The researchers intervewed 144 pupils from a cross-section of schools in Cleveland, Tyne and Wear, Co Durham, and Cumbria.

All the girls aged 12 to 15 were aware of drugs and their use, and many had easy access. They talked about acid, speed, dope, magic mushrooms, poppers, ecstasy, glue, air freshener, hair spray, and lighter fuel.

One girl said: 'You get offered cannabis every time you go out. They were all smoking it last night. No one's bothered about smoking dope.'

Girls from a middle-class school said teachers knew pupils smoked cannabis and sniffed glue and lighter fuel in the lavatories at breaktime, but often ignored it.

A 13-year-old said: 'Teachers need to realise that it's not just, like, 15- and 16-year-olds that need the education. It's like our age . . . it is happening to 13-year-olds.' Another 13-year-old talked of drug 'pushers' in her school.

Of the 12- to 15-year-old boys, all the cannabis users had at an earlier stage sniffed solvents. Only four of the group said they would turn to their parents to discuss a drug-related problem.

Most youths aged 16 to 18 thought the typical drug user was 'a good lad, just a normal person. You don't have to be, like, abnormal to take drugs'. One said: 'You know those heroin adverts, 'Heroin Really Screws You Up', where they've got spots and greasy hair. But people who take drugs don't look like that at all.'

Pupils from the rural areas were just as aware of dealers and pubs where drugs could be bought as those in the cities. In all 12 schools boys said pupils sniffed amyl nitrite, smoked cannabis and took LSD in the lavatories, the yard, or in free lessons.

A girl said: 'Until six months ago, I had never seen a drug in my life. It's not that I've changed the people I've gone around with. The people I didn't think would take it have done so.'

According to the pupils interviewed, drug education was non- existent, came too late, or was taught by inappropriate members of staff.

Robert, 15, goes to a comprehensive secondary school in south-east London that has a mixture of working-class and middle-class pupils. A group of 14- and 15-year-olds sell cannabis in the playground. Seventeen-year-olds supply speed and acid. Boys aged 14 to 16 are the main customers.

Robert said: 'There's five or six of them - you just go up to them and they usually have dope for sale. They'll sell you as much as you want or split it and sell you pounds 5 worth. It's the rough kids from the local estate that sell the stuff, they get it from their friends. There are a lot of worse schools - the comprehensive down the road is much harder than ours.'

Walker, a district in Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, has a proud, tight- knit working-class community, with all the social and health problems typical of an inner-city housing estate. Teenagers hang around the streets that divide the Thirties council terraces.

Unemployment is high and drug use among young people is rife. Cannabis, Valium, temazepam - a sleeping tablet - LSD, and ecstasy are all sold.

Paul started sniffing air freshener when he was 11. Now 19, he takes a mixture of cannabis - known as 'tack' in Newcastle - Valium and LSD.

'As soon as I went to senior school I started. I meet people there who sold me tack. You can get whatever you need on the estate - you just need to know where to go. It's like going to the shop and buying food,' he said.

Sue, 15, started sniffing gas three years ago, but now prefers taking ecstasy (E) - which her boyfriend buys - at the weekends with her friends. 'It's illegal, but you are not bothered. Everyone does it, it's just normal. Sometimes I think about what I'm doing, but not that often as I'm enjoying myself.'

Simon, 17, takes 'soft' drugs every day. 'My mum and dad never talk to me about drugs. I used to come in stoned, but they just thought I had been drinking. My dad hates drugs but my mum doesn't mind about a bit of tack. No one I know takes heavy drugs, just tablets, tack, and some E - there's nothing wrong with it.'

Names of the drug users have been changed.

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