The terrifying degree to which drug abuse has become a part of everyday life for hundreds of thousands of British children is revealed today.
Many start as young as 11. By the age of 16 nearly one in ten boys is regularly taking drugs – including heroin and cocaine – with the statistics for girls almost as high, according to a ground-breaking study.
The figures mean that across the country probably 400,000 under-16s are now regular users.
The nationwide survey, taken among 18,000 pupils at 67 schools, is the first to examine how often children use drugs rather than just whether they take them at all.
It paints a frightening picture of the grip the culture exerts on the young – and the explosion in use as they pass through their teenage years.
At the age of 11, out of every thousand boys 12 count themselves as regular users, meaning they take drugs weekly over a period of three months or more.
By the age of 14 the figure is 59 out of every thousand. But by the age of 16 some 88 boys out of every thousand meet the ‘regular user’ test.
While cannabis remains the drug most heavily used there is increasing evidence that even very young pupils are now trying and persisting with the hardest of drugs.
Among 11-year-old users, seven out of every thousand say they have used heroin and 13 in every thousand admit trying cocaine.
The statistics highlight the way drugs are now regarded by many teenagers as integral to their music and dance culture and an automatic part of growing up.
Even the one in ten 16-year-old boys and one in fourteen 16-year-old girls who told researchers they do not take them admitted they expected to use them over the next 12 months.
Where once cannabis was regarded as the preserve of a rebellious minority, it now stands alongside drugs such as Ecstasy as a indispensable entertainment aid.
A recent survey found that one in four young people in their teens and early 20s routinely drives while under the influence. Nearly one in five believes taking drugs makes them better drivers.
The falling price of drugs has now put them within reach of many children. But those who can’t afford them simply turn to crime.
One recent survey by the charity Drugscope calculated that teenage heroin addicts in provincial towns are now spending £10,000 a year on average on their habits – raised largely by shoplifting, stealing cars, burglary, theft and street robbery.
The latest survey was carried out by the Swansea-based Adolescent Assessment Service, which makes regular studies of the lifestyles, habits and interests of the young.
It was backed by a number of education authorities anxious to get new information to boost their anti-drug programmes.
Researcher Jeremy Gluck said yesterday that it showed that campaigns should target children in the years leading up to their early teens. ‘The critical period for initiation occurs for girls at age 13 and for boys at 14,’ he said.
‘The dramatic increase in usage at the ages of 13 and 14 is a central feature of sub-stance use and preventative work could usefully be focused on the years preceding these age groups.’
He admitted: ‘These findings are a cause for concern.’
The study found that fewer than half the children who admitted using drugs were regarded as having ‘high self-esteem’ against more than three- quarters of non-drug users.
But nearly one in six of the users were recorded as having ‘low self- esteem’ – children who are most vulnerable to failure at school, crime, ill-health and single parenthood.
The evidence suggested that children who first become accustomed to alcohol are also those most likely to graduate to drug-taking.
‘It does appear clear that drug usage is associated with damaging psychological effects,’ Mr Gluck added.
Anti-drug campaigners blamed the scale of habitual use on the weakness of anti-drug education and the popularity of ‘harm reduction’ ideas that say teenagers should be helped to use drugs wisely rather than told to ‘say no’.
Mary Brett of the National Drug Prevention Alliance said the survey was proof that the Government had failed to begin to get to grips with the menace.
She said: ‘It is vital that we start to tell children the truth about drugs, starting with the truth that cannabis is not harmless but a gateway drug that does lead on to other and worse drugs.
‘Children should not just be told to say no. They should be told why – how drugs affect not just your body but your social and economic future.’
Influential recent inquiries – notably a report by Dame Ruth Runciman for the Police Foundation think tank – have recommended relaxing the laws against cannabis possession to avoid criminalising young people.
Newcastle University sociologist Norman Dennis, an expert on drug use among teenagers, said: ‘The scale of use shown here is high and it is going in the wrong direction.
‘The question we have to look at is not just how big it is, but what it was like a few years ago. The answer is that the level of drug abuse was very small not long ago.’
Mr Dennis, who is to publish a major study of drug abuse later this year, added: ‘This level of drug abuse is inviting disaster for children.
‘We are not doing anything to reduce it, and the more children are given the message that using drugs is acceptable the more they will do so.
‘America managed to cut drug abuse in the 1980s with the “just say no” campaign but nothing like that has been tried here.’
by STEVE DOUGHTY, Daily Mail