Habits: Most drug users are happy, successful people with a taste for the good life

Most young drug users are not stereotypical sad, lonely losers, according to a new study. Jason Bennetto and Benjamin Todd examine the findings of a report that suggests the Government needs to rethink its drugs policy.

Jason Bennetto,Benjamin Todd
Wednesday 05 November 1997 01:02 GMT

Many anti-drugs campaigns and education packages are aimed at the wrong people, often falsely stereotyping young substance-abusers as friendless junkies with no ambitions.

According to a survey of more than 850 people aged between 16 and 24, and 100 in-depth interviews, drug use is commonplace and consumers tend to be independent, lead active lives, and do not lack self-esteem.

The young people trusted and respected their families in much the same way as their non-drug-taking contemporaries, disapproved of "out of control" behaviour by so called "problem" users or addicts, and were no more fatalistic than other teenagers.

They viewed drug-taking as a vital part of everyday living and were only slightly more rebellious than other young people.

The report did find a minority of problem users, who fulfilled the stereotypical Trainspotting image and took a mixture of heroin and methadone with other drugs.

According to recent reports, one quarter of people aged between 16 and 22 have taken drugs in the last three months. The number of young people experimenting with drugs has been rising rapidly in the past decade.

The most popular illegal drug by far is cannabis, followed by amphetamine, LSD and ecstasy. Only a tiny number have taken heroin or cocaine.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation-funded report, The Substance of Youth, which was carried out by Demos, the left-wing think-tank, concluded that there was no single national drugs culture, but different regional trends.

Unemployed recreational drug-users in a run-down district of Manchester viewed drugs as a substitute for a social life and a means of obtaining stimulation.

Most users in Kingston, south-west London, Brighton and Leeds, viewed illicit drugs as a form of relaxation, alongside alcohol.

A student at Kingston University said: "I smoke quite a bit of gear [cannabis] - it relaxes me. It's nicer than alcohol because there's no hangover and it's a lot more relaxing."

Steve, 18, a first-year physics student, added: "I don't want to use anything addictive because if you are addicted you are not in control."

In an old mining village with high unemployment in South Yorkshire, drugs were considered an important part of the young people's social life

"I get through the day mainly by being drugged-up," said John, 18.

There was evidence of young people dropping their habits as they reached their mid-20s, but in Brighton and Kingston, a number of older people continued. Diane, 39, a post doctoral researcher in pharmacology, said: "I've been using heroin for 17 years

Some people did confirm the stereotype drug-user. Tez, 22, in Manchester, said: "I'm sick of pumping heroin. My friend dying [of an overdose] made me take notice. Not that I'm stupid, but I needed a kick up the arse."

Perri 6, co-author of the report, said: "One of the things we have to avoid is a `one size fits all' national policy."

He said the idea of an authoritarian "war" on drugs and youth culture was "hopelessly inappropriate".

Instead, young people need information about the risks, which could be provided at local level, possibly through drug action teams.

l The report is available at pounds 13.45 from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Telephone 01904 629241.

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