Leading article: Forget the lectures. Young people need facts

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What decisions are young people qualified to make? On sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and voting, our attitudes are often inconsistent. This week young people were told by politicians what to think about Noel Gallagher's claim that taking drugs is like "having a cup of tea". They are always being told by politicians not to have sex, although politicians themselves seem to enjoy it in all sorts of prohibited circumstances. And this week another group of politicians asked for their votes, although under-18s don't have them.

Long ago, tea was considered a threat to social order. Now it is the drug of choice for the over-sixties. More recently, civilisation as we know it was threatened by rock 'n' roll. Now the generation that was corrupted by it is running the country, although there is a dissonance between the rebelliousness of youth and the conservatism of maturity. This year we are likely to have a prime minister who once snarled Mick Jagger lyrics in purple loons, but who speaks winningly of strong families. He may not have done drugs, but he surely knows a lot of people who did.

It is on drugs that the gap between what people actually think and what it is considered proper to say is greatest. Both Noel Gallagher and Brian Harvey, the East 17 singer, provided an instant self-rebuttal service of which the political parties would be proud. Mr Gallagher did not actually retract what he said, but when someone is "glad to have started a debate" you can hear the clatter of backpedalling. Clare Short and the Liberal Democrat conference have both called for a debate and look what happened to them. Mr Harvey was not in such a strong position. Despite a 180-degree U-turn within hours, he was sacked by the rest of his clean-living band.

The gap is rapidly becoming unbridgeable, and it cannot be long now before the possession of some controlled drugs is decriminalised. Of all attitudes on social issues, views on the legalisation of cannabis have undergone the most dramatic transformation of the past decade. Since 1983, support for legalisation has gone up from 12 to 31 per cent, with a majority now in favour among under-25s.

The Independent has long argued that cannabis should be legalised and licensed, and removed from the clutches of organised crime. We might draw the line at commercial advertising (imagine the slogan, "Just Say Yes"), but our main reservation about cannabis is that it makes people boring. The same argument probably applies to ecstasy - but, as we report today, the political hysteria about the drug is inhibiting research. It may be that regular users are prone to depressive illnesses, but not enough is known about the long-term effects.

Objective information is the key, and our view is that, on the whole, young people are quite capable of making sophisticated decisions if they are given the facts. In spite of terrible tragedies like the death of Leah Betts, young people will mostly make rational choices for themselves and attempts at total prohibition will generally fail. Young people know that some drugs are dangerous, that injecting is not a good idea, and that the people who get into "hard" drugs usually have other problems. In fact, most young people are probably better informed about drugs than most politicians. They know that politicians speak with forked tongue on this subject, and they can spot the illogicality of banning some boring drugs and not others (alcohol, for example, which causes more death and dismay than any other drug available). What young people want from their elders is not lectures on subjects they know little about but advice based on experience: about how to avoid getting emotionally screwed up, about education and job choices. Pop stars may not be the best role models, but at least they speak from personal experience. And most people are well aware of their fallibility. We all remember an earlier cup of tea, when Boy George said he preferred one to sex, but later admitted he was lying.

The big question is: at what age should people be allowed to make responsible decisions? And the answer for drugs is the same as for most other things. Eighteen is the age at which we become self-governing adults, with some flexibility downwards under parental supervision in some things and some anomalies upwards, such as the ban on being a parliamentary or local council candidate until 21.

Heterosexual sex and smoking at 16, and driving at 17, are the main exceptions. These are untidy evidence of our inconsistent attitudes. Smoking, like marriage, should of course only be allowed with parental consent between 16 and 18. After that, it shouldn't be allowed at all. And men should not be allowed to drive cars or motorbikes until they are 21; women, who are much more responsible, should be permitted to drive from, let's say, 14.

As for sex, the formal age of consent is much less important than information and education, not just about sex but about relationships, bringing up children and self-esteem. And to put the moral panic in perspective, there has been no change in the rate of pregnancies among under-16s since the Seventies.

We see no reason, however, why the "age of majority" should generally be brought down from 18, and so we do not support the Liberal Democrat plea to give the vote to 16-year-olds. The right to vote is perhaps the most important badge of adulthood and it should stay right where it is, marking the move from dependence on one's parents, to trying to make some sense of the world on your own. How many of us, a decade or so further on, think we are any better at it now?