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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 10:45 GMT
Teenagers and drugs: Experts answered your questions
To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Mixmag, the leading publication for youth and club culture, has released its annual drug use survey.

Over 600,000 readers, aged 18-24, responded to Mixmag's survey. The results provide a self-selected snapshot of youth drug culture.

The new report will be cold comfort to parents worrying about children and drugs. According to Mixmag, one-and-a-half million youths use ecstasy each weekend, and many are worried about the long-term effects of using alcohol.

Given the revelations of Prince Harry's use of cannabis and alcohol, questions about teenagers and drug culture have been brought into the spotlight.

What do you think should be done about drugs and young people? How should parents respond? Do you think authorities are doing enough to discourage young people from using drugs?

We were joined by Mixmag senior editor Viv Craske; Harry Shapiro, spokesman for Drugscope; and, Kevin Williamson, author of Drugs and the Party Line who took your questions in a live forum.


The topics discussed in this forum were:

  • The media
  • Criminalization of recreational drugs
  • Drugs research
  • Classification of Ecstasy
  • Legalisation of drugs
  • Alcohol
  • Social acceptability
  • Mental health problems
  • Parents
  • Role of magazines

    The media


    Newshost:

    Name Withheld, UK: Recreational drugs are an integral part of mine and many, many other young peoples lives. It's our choice to do them or not to do them. When do you think the media and powers that be will be able to sit down and talk sensibly about drugs?


    Viv Craske:

    I still don't believe that we're that far along the line. I think that stories like that of Prince Harry take back the argument by several months. For example, the Government is effectively decriminalising cannabis some time this year. But whether or not that will go ahead now that the revelations about Harry have come out, I don't know. For example, Tony Blair has wanted to get softer on the softer drugs such as cannabis for some time but I think he has been waiting for the more Right-wing press, such as the Daily Mail, to calm down its attitude towards drugs. They have done that recently which is why the cannabis legislation is going through. But one story like this can bring back the argument by several months.


    Newshost:

    Kevin Williamson, did you find that that was the reaction as well in the press to the Prince Harry revelations?


    Kevin Williamson:

    I think there was a lot about that but part of it was just people recognising that's what young folk do - when you're 16 you take drugs, you drink alcohol and that's just the way it is and I think it's just a bit of recognition of reality. You will get some people thinking that the Royals are somehow special and maybe it will set back changes. But I don't know about that - I think these things blow over quickly.

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    Criminalization of recreational drugs


    Newshost:

    James Jude, England: Do you think that by criminalizing all recreational drugs it promotes a "try one, try all" culture among uneducated young people?


    Kevin Williamson:

    I think it creates a drugs free for all - especially in your teens - I think when you get to your late 20s and 30s it becomes less so. But as long their illegal, there's a bit of glamour there and it becomes a sort of subversive thing when you're in your teens. So there's doubt about it, the illegality is not making it any better - it's making it a lot worse.

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    Drugs research


    Newshost:

    Mike Doyle, England: If 1.5 million young people are taking ecstasy each week shouldn't this group be studied and researched more seriously?


    Viv Craske:

    Yes that's true but it's very difficult for people to get funding to study recreational drug use in people because of its illegality. So, for example, the Mixmag drug survey is about the best you can get to at the moment as a proper study of young people. Besides Gallup polls which just ask simple questions about drug use, there is no other way of studying young people. So when we have a survey and we ask them in detail about their drug using habits, we can actually get out some useful information about how they're using drugs. Also because it comes from Mixmag, they tend to trust us and they know the information will be used in ways to push the argument on.


    Newshost:

    Harry Shapiro joins us from the drugs charity, Drugscope. What do you make of this Mixmag result which says that 1.5 million young people are taking Ecstasy every weekend?


    Harry Shapiro:

    Well it's hardly startling new news that this level of drugs use has been reported. Figures are always hard to come by - nobody really knows how many people take Ecstasy or how much of the drug is in circulation at any one time. But clearly your talking of substantial numbers of people and that's been the situation all the way through the 90s.

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    Classification of Ecstasy


    Newshost:

    Chris, England: You will be hard pushed to find someone 18-25 in the UK who, if they haven't taken Ecstasy themselves, doesn't know someone who has and has enjoyed the experience. Do you believe that the classification of Ecstasy with heroin as Class A is potentially dangerous?


    Kevin Williamson:

    It is absolutely wrong to have it classified with heroin - other countries have classified it lower. I personally think it should be completely decriminalised but having it alongside heroin is completely ridiculous. It's not a deterrent - it's ridiculous if anyone thinks it's a deterrent. To punish people that much by the sentences it carries, is completely out of all proportion to what's actually being done. So there's no real logical answer for having it as a Class A drug.


    Newshost:

    So how can you deter young people from using drugs like Ecstasy? There's no doubt that Ecstasy in some cases is extremely dangerous and indeed potentially lethal.


    Kevin Williamson:

    I don't think you can deter people - I think you can only educate them and what surveys like Mixmag are doing is very important in that. Give them as much information as possible. What goes up must come down - that was one of the things that the survey has shown. It explains about looking after yourself and looking at the frequency you take Ecstasy - these things are far more valuable than trying to deter people because people will do it any way.

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    Legalisation of drugs


    Newshost:

    Mark Mitchell, Canada: Hasn't the time come to consider legalization of most drugs?


    Kevin Williamson:

    Well I think it has. Any drug in the black market is going to create more damage than if it was legalised - the question is how you do it. I think obviously we need to start with cannabis - that's without a doubt - we need to legalise cannabis straight away. There's no dangers from legalisation from cannabis that may crop up. Whereas, for example, Ecstasy if something went wrong with someone taking Ecstasy from a legitimate source, what legal repercussions would that have - these sorts of things would need to be ironed out. But there's no doubt about it, the black market is causing much damage because you don't know what you're buying.


    Newshost:

    Harry, deterrents aren't working, so is legalisation the obvious step?


    Harry Shapiro:

    It may be an obvious step but I suspect that it's a step that is some way down the line from a political point of view. We represent nearly 1,000 people in organisations and agencies who work in the drugs field and they're not convinced by the legalisation argument. One thing though Drugscope has said - and this was in its evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee that's meeting at the moment to look at the whole business of the drugs strategy and what we do about drugs - is that possession of small amounts of any drug shouldn't really be a criminal offence.

    You are talking about a situation where you might say, drugs are dangerous, drugs are risky, people are stupid if they do it. But that's a big step from saying - are they really criminals - should this be something that you go through the court system with, that people get criminal records for. Our response to this so far has been no. There are systems of penal fines - a bit like parking tickets and speeding fines. There are ways of telling people that there are boundaries that at the moment they can't really step beyond rather than taking up an awful lot of time and money apart from anything else - taking people through the court system. This is what they've been trialling in Brixton recently with cannabis and it's a thing that's under review at the moment. I think they're extending the pilot until July to decide whether this is a better use of police time than taking people who are in possession of cannabis off to court.

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    Alcohol


    Newshost:

    Susan Metcalfe, United Kingdom: I am interested in the fact that the use of cannabis is portrayed by the media as "the road to ruin" whilst mention of underage drinking is just seen as a "right of passage". Doesn't alcohol cause more harm than cannabis?


    Kevin Williamson:

    Absolutely - all the facts back that up. I thought one of things about the Prince Harry story was that it was ridiculous taking him to a drugs detox centre after he had admitted to taking a joint. That's reinforcing the idea that cannabis is a gateway drug to harder drug use and it's just not true. It's an absolute fallacy that's been promoted by people who should really know better. I think we need to have a look at all drugs individually and adopt the policies accordingly. There is no doubt it there is absolute hypocrisy on the Government's behalf with regards to their cannabis and alcohol policy. Alcohol is far more dangerous - it causes more social destruction and chaos in its wake and it's promoted as vigorously as possible throughout sport, entertainment and industry and I think that's all wrong.

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    Social acceptability


    Newshost:

    Royston W, UK living in the US I used so called leisure drugs for years in the clubs and bars between the age 19 to 27. These included speed, Ecstasy, ketamine, (although it was sold as Ecstasy) cocaine and LSD. The price I pay today at aged 30 is diminished short-term memory and as a result my career suffers tremendously. What can be done to make drug use less socially acceptable?


    Harry Shapiro:

    Very little, I suspect is the answer to that - the genie is out of the lamp - you can't really undo what has been done. I suspect that increasingly over the last 20 years or so, use of drugs like Ecstasy, LSD and amphetamines has actually become more socially acceptable rather than less. It's hard to imagine a scenario where we can, in a sense, turn the clock back - you can "uninvent" these drugs. Once they are out there and people want them, there will be people there who will be prepared to supply them - whether that's an illegal supply or an illegal supply, it doesn't matter - you can't close the lid on this.

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    Mental health problems


    Newshost:

    Julian, United Kingdom: I am worried by the trend in your survey that seems to say that continued use of Ecstasy every weekend by some people, may lead to mental health problems, and the users themselves probably know this. What is the medical evidence available linking the use of Ecstasy to mental health problems?


    Viv Craske:

    There is a problem with medical evidence - there was a famous survey a few years ago where they tested lab rats with high doses of Ecstasy and they found out that there was high levels of brain damage. But you can't tell much unless you do proper social studies with people involving a long period of time. People have been taking Ecstasy in large amounts since the 80s so there is a point to suggest that if there was going to long-term mental damage, we might be seeing some of it now.

    That's not to say that there aren't dangers with Ecstasy. For example, in the Mixmag drugs survey we used a general health questionnaire that's used by mental health workers and psychiatrists which generally asked people about their mental state. We found out that one in four people had the potential to develop some kind of mental disorder through their drug use - whether that's insomnia or panic attacks, depression etc. - which does back up a lot of the lab studies. But it is absolutely impossible to say unless we have some proper human studies to look into this.


    Newshost:

    Is it not until that hard medical evidence appears that young people will start to wake up and think we're not going to use it?


    Harry Shapiro:

    I don't think so. Everybody at that age thinks their immortal. If you tell a 16 year old, if you carry on smoking like that by the time you're 60 you'll could well have lung cancer - what kind of response do you think you're going to get to that? Obviously medical research and information should be available to young people. Give people the facts and they will make their own decision. Now it may be a decision that a lot of people don't like but nevertheless that's what's going to happen.

    Let's be honest there's been a fair amount of scare-mongering about Ecstasy and long-term chronic depression. It would be a very hard study to be able to determine that in 30 or 40 years time we've got a more depressed population than we would have had if there had never been such a thing as Ecstasy. It's going to be almost impossible to determine that. Having said that, there are going to be individuals coming forward to psychiatric services who've been through the club scene with possibly some fall out from their drug use. But on a wide scale it's going to be quite difficult to determine how prevalent that is.

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    Parents


    Newshost:

    "University Male", USA:Some say kids go through an experimental stage, but I hate to tell parents out there, there is a lot more drug use going on then just "experimenting". How should parents respond if they suspect their kid is "experimenting?"


    Harry Shapiro:

    Of all the materials that we've ever published over the years, we've generally taken the line that if you shouldn't over-react, ultimately it's a communications issue as much as anything else. There are some companies around at the moment that are selling drug-testing kits for parents - now that kind of thing is quite obviously counterproductive. People also often mistake the symptoms of growing up - moodiness, being uncommunicative etc. -as some prescient of demon drug use. But I think, if you've got a reasonable relationship with your children and there's some sort of trust and communication there and they know they can come to you if they've got problems etc. - at least you'll be aware of the sorts of things that are happening early on. Whether you can absolutely stop it is another matter entirely.

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    Role of magazines


    Newshost:

    Stephen Grady Scotland accuses Mixmag and probably a number of other popular culture organs of promoting drug use. How do you respond to that as a representative of that industry?


    Viv Craske:

    I think our drugs stance has always been quite clear. We've always said that we don't condone or condemn drug use. Our policy is to provide as much information so that people can make their own choice because at the end of the day, it's their own personal choice. People trust Mixmag because we give them good, reliable information. We've surveyed people before who've said that they definitely don't trust government drug information and some people don't even trust really trust drug agency information but they definitely trust us.

    My concerns are with the health of clubbers and with their legal status. So I don't people being made criminals who the only criminal thing they do is what they take at the weekends. Also I don't want people ending up in hospital or having mental repercussions years later from their drug use. So we provide as much information as possible and what they do with it is there choice.

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