Drug Education News

News and views from the Drug Education Forum

World Drug Report 2009

The World Drug Report from UNODC argues:

Analysing drug use among young people matters for several key reasons. First, most people start to use drugs during their youth and it is among young people that drug prevention activities are best targeted. Secondly, trends in the use of illicit drugs among young people may indicate shifts in drug markets, since young people usually react to changes in drug availability or social perceptions about drug use more quickly than older people; such use is likely to be occasional drug use. Thirdly, starting drug use at an early age has been linked to negative health and social outcomes in later years.

It also provides a defence of school based surveys arguing they are cost effective and relatively accurate ways of assessing the use of drugs by adolescents.

In terms of young people’s drug use in the UK the report doesn’t have a great deal to say.

World Drug Report cannabisThe chart to the left maps the reported cannabis use amongst 15 and 16 year olds, which has fallen in the UK. And there are various other maps in the document which point to the relatively high use of illegal drugs by young people in the UK and indeed Western Europe and North America more broadly.

Looking at a slightly older group of young people Alan Travis, writing in the Guardian, says:

the UN figures show that the annual prevalence of cannabis use among people aged 16-24 in Britain actually fell from 28% in 1998 to 18% in 2007-08, a decline of more than one third over the past decade.

He suggests this change in use is under-reported in the media’s coverage of drug issues.

Kathy Gyngell, writing on the CPS blog, uses the report to reiterate her argument that the government’s drug strategy is flawed and failing. She says:

Nowhere is this claim [of policy efficacy] less credible than in their resort to these ‘official’ measures of declining cannabis use to ‘prove’ that adolescent drug use and addiction are under control.  Neither of these surveys reach the part of the population that drugs reach most. Fewer schools sampled each year chose to cooperate.  The number of truanting, absentee and excluded children continues to rise.  The Government apparently remains convinced that if schoolchildren’s cannabis use is dropping that this is sufficient unto the day. The ‘if’ remains quite big.

cannabis englandI’ve gone back to Drug use, smoking and drinking among young people in England in 2007 to look at some of the issues that Kathy throws up.

It looks to me as if she has a point about the number of schools taking part in the survey, the chart below shows there has been a sharp fall in the number of schools willing to take part in the survey. The authors report a number of reasons given by schools for not taking part which include not being willing to give up the time required schools taking partfor pupils to complete the questionnaire, a lack of staff time to assist with the survey, and there are too many similar surveys being conducted. They also say that many schools though willing to take part found the timescales involved too difficult to negotiate.

However, whether the fall in school participation is significant in terms of the validity of the data collected is different point.

The sample size for the survey is nearly 9,000 young people, and in last year’s survey truancy played very little part in the reasons pupils failed to take part in the survey (less than 1 % overall). As for permanent exclusion the trend in England has been down as we’ve recently explored on the blog.

truantThe survey report does, however, acknowledge that truants and those that have been excluded from school are likely to be under-represented in the survey’s findings. Nevertheless, they record the added likelihood of taking drugs frequently that being excluded or being a truant brings. They say:

Pupils who had truanted from school had two and a half times the odds of taking drugs in the last year (odds ratio=2.57) compared with those who had never truanted. Similarly, pupils who had been excluded from school had increased odds of having taken drugs in the last year (odds ratio=1.67).

On the broader point of whether cannabis use should be considered the proxy indicator for drug use amongst young people, I think it’s too crude to be truly helpful, but cannabis remains the most widely used illegal drug. And I think there’s a need to have these indicators so that those outside our field can get a sense of what the trends might be.

That said my experience over the last 5 or so years has been that reporting on young people’s substance use hasn’t been confined to cannabis. What the media seem less keen on focusing on are the group of young people who don’t take drugs, and who never have.

neverThat’s understandable, when I did some training on writing press releases a few years ago the trainer emphasised three points: timeliness, celebrity, and conflict.

So, as Alan Travis indicates, there’s often no story in the positive or the usual.

But as a measure of the success or failure of drug policy it surely ought to be there in the mix.  I’d be interested in your views.

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