The Normalisation of Recreational Drug Use, Part 2

Continues to look at British youth culture and the role of drugs and alcohol among adolescents during the 1990s. (952 words)

Parker and colleagues described four distinct drug pathways that young people in their study had taken during their adolescence.

Abstainers held anti-drug attitudes, had never taken a drug, and never intended to. Former triers held fairly negative attitudes to drug use and whilst they had tried or used illicit drugs, they had no intention of doing so again.

Those in transition held fairly positive drug attitudes, most had tried drugs, and all felt they might use drugs in the future. Current users held pro-drug attitudes, used one or more drugs regularly, and expected their drug careers to continue into the future.

By reflecting on and reviewing their attitudes to drugs, young people could switch pathways. As young people in the study moved into adulthood, there was an increase in the proportion who became current users and a reduction in the number of abstainers. Young people in transition were more likely to use the ‘softer’ drugs such as cannabis, whereas current users had a larger drug repertoire, including amphetamines and ecstasy.

However, the researchers noted that:

‘Whilst current users have the most florid, risk-taking antecedents, including early smoking, drinking and sexual experiences, they do not have strong delinquent tendencies nor fit into any typology of abnormal development.’

‘… today’s young drug takers are of both sexes, come from all social and educational backgrounds and are in most other respects conventional.’

Parker and colleagues used in-depth interviews to build on the pathway analysis, by providing a perspective of the actual experiential journeys their drug triers and users took during adolescence.

The vast majority of the drug users had gotten their drugs via friends or friends of friends. Direct contact with professional dealers was rare. In terms of drug initiation, interviewees stressed personal curiosity and the support, sometimes encouragement, occasionally ‘pressure’, of friendship networks.

Most first time experiences were with cannabis and were benign. LSD and amphetamines and, in late adolescence, ecstasy, were occasionally more problematic.

The researchers argued that most young people were drug wise and they differentiated between the range of drugs readily available on the youth market in terms of their effects, both positive and negative. 

Nearly all of the sample rejected heroin and cocaine out of hand, as drugs with dreadful reputations because of their addictive potential and the world of dealers. Cannabis was viewed as a fairly safe drug, whilst amphetamines, LSD and ecstasy were more equivocally defined.

The decision to take a drug involved assessing the balance between risk and possible costs against personal enjoyment from taking a particular drug. The risk assessed were in terms of stigma and risk societycensure by parents, partners, friends, teachers, criminal justice system. Personal relationships and career opportunities might be damaged. However, whilst immediate health risks were assessed, long-term health risks were rarely assessed.

In their excellent book Illegal Leisure: The Normalization of Adolescent Recreational Drug Use [1], Parker and colleagues argued that the nature of the experience of growing up had changed in the world of the 1990s. Rapid social changes in so many aspects of everyday life had resulted in growing up ‘feeling’ far less secure and more uncertain for far longer than had happened prior to this time. ‘To grow up today is to grow up in a risk society.’

‘The unprecedented increase in recreational drug use is deeply embedded in these other and social processes since such drug use is both about risk taking but also about ‘time out’ to self-medicate the impact of the stresses and strains of both success and failure in ‘modern’ times.’

The researchers emphasised that the UK drug strategy, being embedded in a ‘war on drugs’ discourse, missed the point. It was based on many misconceptions about young people and drugs.

The first misconception was that young drug takers would become addicted to or disinhibited by their drugs, and become young offenders spiralling out of control into a life of crime and disorder. However, only a small minority of persistent offenders committed crimes and took drugs. Many of these young people also drank too much alcohol, grew up in care, were excluded from school, and needed psychiatric help. What was the cause of the crime? Many also committed crimes before having problems with drugs.

The vast majority of young people who took drugs did not follow this path. Also, there were few signs of dependency in the recreational scene of this study.

Another government misconception was that young people were pressured into taking drugs. However, participants in this study insisted that they made their own drugs decisions for which they took responsibility. The notion of peer pressure was a source of resentment to many young people when expounded by adults delivering drug education.

Parker and colleagues also argued that young people’s drug use had become entangled in the wider moral panic about, and blaming of youth, for society problems. They emphasised that continuing the ‘war on drugs’ and ignoring the reality of young people’s drug taking was resulting in a neglect in dealing with reducing the harms and risks of drug use.

They pointed out the need to:

  • accept that drug use occurs and treat the user as a citizen
  • try and help assure that street drugs are quality tested
  • help young people share information and experiences about drugs, in particular bad experiences
  • create a situation where young people trust the information (including scientific) on drugs provided by older people
  • create a situation where young people feel that they can come forward and talk about their drug problem without censure.


[1] Illegal Leisure: The Normalization of Adolescent Recreational Drug Use by Howard Parker, Judith Aldridge and Fiona Measham: Routledge, 1998.

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The Normalisation of Recreational Drug Use, Part 1

British youth culture and the role of drugs and alcohol among adolescents during the 1990s. (874 words)

Only a small minority of people who try an illicit drug develop a problem. Many people who try an illicit drug do so on one or a few occasions and decide the experience is not for them. Some may use one or more illicit drugs on a periodic basis, whilst others may use more regularly, but still their use is recreational and controlled.

The use of illicit drugs has increased greatly over the past forty years, in particular during the 1990s. As an example of this change, a large-scale annual survey by the University of Exeter’s Health Education Unit (involving 30,000 children from 150 schools in England and Scotland) revealed that the proportion of 15- and 16-year olds who reported ever having tried an illicit drug rose from 10% in 1989 to 40% in 1996.

In 1991, Professor Howard Parker and his colleagues initiated a unique piece of research which tracked a large sample of young people (14 – 18 years old) from the North West of England over a five-year period. The study confirmed the widespread recreational use of illicit drugs, and provided essential insights into British youth culture and the role of drugs and alcohol among adolescents.

This study took place against the backdrop of a ‘youth-drugs-crime-danger’ message both from media and politicians. When John Major, the then Prime Minister, announced his new drug strategy (Tackling Drugs Together) in a speech to the Social Market Foundation (9 September 1994), he chose ‘yob-culture’ as the soundbite he wanted the media to highlight.

Tackling Drugs Together was about offenders and crime, indeed ‘no single crime prevention measure would be more significant than success on the front against drugs.’ One premise of the strategy was that young people were ‘at risk of drug abuse’ and succumb because of peer pressure. The second premise was that drugs are dangerous and a menace. The third was that because drug use leads to crime, local communities are at risk from drug users.

The war-on-drugs rhetoric of the Tory Government, and the desire to link drugs and crime, was later hijacked by the Labour Party in opposition. It was continued once Labour came into power.

In their book Illegal Leisure: The Normalization of Adolescent Recreational Drug Use [1], Parker and colleagues emphasised that this political discourse has an:

‘… energy of its own. It promotes public fear and anxiety about crime, drugs and youth which in turn it then uses to interfere simplistically, and with apparent public consent, in drugs and criminal justice policy and practice. This process, because it can barely be challenged, thus spins along reinforcing itself.’

But this simplistic rhetoric ignored the question as to why the majority of young people try illicit drugs and a significant minority continue to use them regularly. In trying to understand this situation, Parker and colleagues emphasised that that the very nature of adolescence was changing—the context and the conditions in which young people were growing up was very different to generations before.

The research study involved a sample of over 700 14-year olds being tracked annually for up to five years. Each year, they were asked about their personal and family circumstances, their disposable income, use of leisure, and perspectives on personal and social relationships. They were asked in detail about their use of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use.

As they matured, more complex issues were pursued, including their attitudes towards drug use and drug users, their assessment of health education they received, and their experiences at parties and nightclubs.

Five annual self-report surveys were undertaken, and 86 interviews were conducted when respondents were 17 years old. Eight co-educational state secondary schools in the North West metropolitan area of the UK were used. The questionnaires were distributed in the classrooms with teachers absent.

The overall aim of the study was to assess how ‘ordinary’ young people growing up in England in the 1990s developed attitudes and behaviours in relation to the unprecedented ready availability of drugs, alongside other consumption options such as alcohol and tobacco.

The findings suggested that recreational drug use had become widespread amongst British youth. Over 36% of the sample had tried an illicit drug by age 14, and this increased to 51% by age 16, and 64% by age 18. Over 60% and 90% of the sample had received drug offers at age 14 and 18 years, respectively.

The most commonly tried drugs by age 18 were cannabis (59% tried), amyl nitrites or “poppers” (35%), amphetamines (33%), LSD (28%) and ecstasy (20%). Only 6% had tried cocaine and l0.6% had tried heroin.

Females were almost as likely as males to have tried an illicit drug by age 18, and there were no differences between youth from working and middle-class backgrounds. At age 18, nearly one-quarter of the sample had tried an illicit drug in the past week.

The study also revealed that young people reported many more positive experiences of drug use than negative outcomes.

By age 14 years, 90% of the sample had tried alcohol, with 30% claiming to drink on a weekly basis. This percentage rose to 80% in 18-year olds, with a mean consumption of ten units on the last drinking occasion. At age 18 years, just over a third of the sample were current smokers.


[1] Illegal Leisure: The Normalization of Adolescent Recreational Drug Use by Howard Parker, Judith Aldridge and Fiona Measham: Routledge, 1998.

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Should Recreational Drug Use Be Criminalised? (Part 1)

Explores the regulation and control of drugs by looking at philosopher Douglas Husak’s views on the justice of US drug laws. (909 words)

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Drug Choices… and the Loss of Choice

Various factors contribute to the initiation and early use of drugs and alcohol. As time passes, other factors also influence whether substance use continues. The vast majority of people who use drugs or alcohol do so without any problems. However, long-term drug or alcohol use can lead to addiction in a significant minority. (944 words)

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