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Drugs and Alcohol (young people)

Young people's views on drugs and the law

Young people we spoke with had different views about whether drugs should be legalised. Some had strong views for or against legalising drugs but most people felt it was a complicated issue that needed careful consideration.
 
The difference between legalisation and decriminalisation
It is important to understand the difference between ‘decriminalisation’ and ‘legalisation’ of drugs.
 
‘Legalisation’ means that drugs would be completely legal with some controls in place.
 
‘Decriminalisation’ would mean that it would no longer be a crime for a person to have drugs in their possession but they may be fined or given some sort of small penalty. 
 
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 sets out the laws in the UK around possessing and selling illegal drugs. The Act of 1971 says that not all drugs are equally dangerous, so are categorised into three classes of risk; A, B and C. Class A drugs such as heroin, cocaine and ecstasy bring the most severe penalties. Other psychoactive substances not covered by the MIsuse of Drugs Act fall under the Psychoactive Sustances Act 2016.
 
Arguments against legalising or decriminalising drugs
Some young people were against changing the laws on drugs. Tara and Leah said ‘drugs are illegal for a reason’. They consider all drugs to be dangerous and said that they can lead to mental health problems or other issues.
 
The main argument against legalisation was the risk to health associated with drug use. Some young people argued that illegal drugs are worse for a person’s health than alcohol. Several people, like Craig thought that cannabis would lead on to other drugs (a ‘gateway’ drug) but others disagreed with this.
 

Tara stresses that drugs are illegal because they’re dangerous.

Tara stresses that drugs are illegal because they’re dangerous.

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
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Illegal drugs are illegal for a reason, because they are dangerous. They wouldn’t, they wouldn’t have laws against them if they weren’t so I don’t like drugs.
 
What would you say to people who say, “Oh well cannabis doesn't harm you.”?
 
I would tell them my experience [door noise], at the end of the day, I can’t stop anyone from doing anything, if they really want to do it they’ll go out and do it [knocking at door] they’ll learn from their mistakes as I’ve learnt from mine. At the moment my priority is myself and my son, I can give other people my experiences, I can let them know what I’ve been through but it’s up to them at the end of the day.
 
 

Emily says that people think differently about alcohol compared to illegal drugs.

Emily says that people think differently about alcohol compared to illegal drugs.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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No alcohol wouldn’t be a drug. I think more the substance drugs rather than like alcohol and smoking I think. That’s all like them cutting their coke and stuff like that. I see them as drugs rather than alcohol and smoking.
 
Ok so illegal drugs to you?
 
Yeah illegal drugs, yeah.
 
And rather than alcohol and nicotine?
 
I think because alcohol and nicotine are used a lot more than drugs and there’s more publicised... It’s more publicised about drugs like don’t use drugs than it is about alcohol and smoking really. And I think because alcohol and smoking are legal a lot more people do them than they do drugs.
 
Do you think there is the same awareness about side effects as there is for illegal drugs?
 
I think they should but I think as well because they are legal then people look at them different.
 
So people think it is ok?
 
Yeah to smoke and to drink than it is to do drugs.
 
Must be ok to do it yeah.
 
If they are illegal there is a kind of warning?
 

Yeah. I think still smoking there’s a lot of things about smoking that’s like they could kill you and stuff and I think that’s seen a lot more than drinking because like more people drink than they do smoke. Like just about nearly everybody will have a drink at weekend or at special occasions they’ll have a drink. So I think smoking and drugs are seen differently to alcohol. 

Arguments for legalising or decriminalising drugs 
A few people were in favour of drugs being decriminalised or legalised but regulated by the Government.  They argued that, if drugs were legal, the Government could regulate the purity of drugs to make them safer and charge tax on them like they do with alcohol and cigarettes. They also thought that legalising drugs would make it easier for people to get help for addiction problems. They felt that drugs are often talked about drugs as a moral (‘right’ or ‘wrong’) issue but it would be more helpful to see them as a health issue.
 

Charlie thinks that keeping drugs illegal causes more harm than good. She says that criminal gangs grew in the UK because of drug dealing.

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Charlie thinks that keeping drugs illegal causes more harm than good. She says that criminal gangs grew in the UK because of drug dealing.

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I believe the social harms of keeping drugs illegal outweigh the social good of trying to stop people taking them. So you should make them controlled and regulated. Have very strict controls on advertising. Have very strict controls on where you can sell them, who you can sell them to. You’d want to give it to local city councils for example so as to control the licensing like you do with the Licensing Act for alcohol. And then you’d have a system where drug users can get the drugs that they want without necessarily having to go through all the criminality, the impurity, and to be honest that’s where a lot of the risk is. You also cut out a large proportion gangs. Gangs grew up in the UK because of drug dealing.

There are areas in loads of cities that turned bad because of large-scale drug dealing and that’s where a lot of gangs came from in the UK.
 
If you legalised the system, you get rid of a lot of incentives to deal drugs – you cut out a lot of the profit.  And that would remove the motive for a lot of crime.  Most of the problems with drug use have only occurred since drug use became illegal, 40 years ago.

So I very much I consider the social harms outweigh the social benefits of keeping them illegal.
 

Charlie and Chloe said that politicians are ignore what they are being told about drugs by scientists and base decisions on what the general public think.
 

Charlie says that governments are ignoring the scientific evidence. She thinks that there are health risks associated with drug use but alcohol is a bigger health issue.

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Charlie says that governments are ignoring the scientific evidence. She thinks that there are health risks associated with drug use but alcohol is a bigger health issue.

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I’m concerned with health issues but not as much as I think the government are. Because there just, there isn’t a huge amount of research and the government. I mean the government’s position is untenable. People get fired for essentially saying the government is wrong. And when you’re firing people who are scientific advisors like Professor Nutt – then you’re not dealing with the facts or the science or the health implications.  Instead, you’re basing policy on the fact that most people think drugs are bad, and that’s a moral issue. That’s not a health issue.

The health issues with drugs are important.  But to put them in perspective, the biggest health issue is alcohol.  For government so spend so much energy using the power of force against drug user and dealers is ridiculous when they do pretty much nothing about alcohol.  It shows you that the government is not taking a principled stance, but a convenient one.
Drugs get demonised more than alcohol probably because the alcohol industry has a lot of money, a lot of lobbyists and a lot of clout.  Drug dealers might have money but they don’t get to influence politics.
 

 

Daniel is in favour of legalising drugs because those who use them won't be criminalised and it’ll be easier to get help for addiction.

Daniel is in favour of legalising drugs because those who use them won't be criminalised and it’ll be easier to get help for addiction.

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But the problem is that they don’t know what they have in it?
 
Yeah. I mean this is why
 
I mean they could have sand or
 
This is why I’m a big advocate of just legalising everything.
 
You think that will solve the problem?
 
I don’t think it will solve the problem but I think the people who do drugs socially will be able to do them and I think that addicts will get help quicker if the government controlled it all.
 
But I don’t see, I just don’t. If someone can explain to me what the problem with MDMA is then I’d love to hear it. I mean I’m talking about social drug users using MDMA. I mean what’s the problem with that.
 
Well I mean it’s addictive to people who are drug addicts but for most people who don’t have an addictive thing, gene or whatever the fuck this is, it’s a good night out. It’s not. I just hate the way that governments have criminalised this. I mean if you really want to make something illegal how about cigarettes. How many people have died because of cigarettes? More than both the fucking World Wars put together. Malcolm McKlaren last night, cigarettes. George Harrison, killed one of the fucking Beatles, cigarettes. You know if you want to make something illegal, make cigarettes illegal but not after this interview because I will need to smoke after this.
 

Legalise it. I think they should completely legalise it and then maybe people would realise just what a stupid waste of time it is. 

Questions were raised as to whether drugs being illegal actually made any difference to the numbers of people who use them. Sam said that drugs are so easy to get hold of means that their being illegal doesn’t stop young people from using them. He gave the example of mephedrone, which was made illegal in the UK in 2010. In his opinion, people have continued using it and he’s seen no indication that it has become more difficult to get hold of mephedrone since the ban.
 
Some talked about whether drugs were more appealing because they’re illegal. 
 

Craig thinks that some young people find illegal drugs appealing and, like alcohol for the under eighteens, they may enjoy it more because it’s prohibited.

Craig thinks that some young people find illegal drugs appealing and, like alcohol for the under eighteens, they may enjoy it more because it’s prohibited.

Age at interview: 22
Sex: Male
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Do you think it has something to do with the boundaries between legal and non-legal?
 
I think with young people under 18 definitely, definitely is because I mean it’s been said before. Once you turn 18 you start drinking. It gets a bit boring because even if you’re caught you can just whip out your passport and you’re old enough whereas before it was kind of on edge kind of. You enjoyed it more because it was prohibited.
 
Do you think that something similar happens to drugs?
 
I think it does. I think kind of, I mean it has been said that if more people smoked cannabis at the time of legalisation of tobacco and alcohol then it would be legal now. I mean I don’t see it as an overly dangerous drug but I see it as a gateway, gateway drug.
 
I mean young people who mess about with, you know, the cigarettes and the alcohol that’s cool. Let them do it. With the drugs you kind of, you don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for. You know you’ve got to get in there. You’ve got to go and buy it off some dodgy bloke [laugh], who can, you know, you don’t know where you’re going and you don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for. So that’s kind of, that’s the kind of unknown element but at that age you don’t really care. 
Some said that wars, child exploitation, cheap labour and prostitution were directly connected to the illegal drugs trade and they wanted no part in it. This was mentioned as a reason both for wanting a change in the law and for personally not wanting to use drugs.
 

Charlie says she doesn’t take cocaine because she doesn’t want her money to fund organised crime, wars and deforestation.

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Charlie says she doesn’t take cocaine because she doesn’t want her money to fund organised crime, wars and deforestation.

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Also, I have become much more aware of the ethical issues with drugs as of late.
 
Meaning?
 
Well cocaine is produced in South America, Latin America and people. Like it’s basically it’s the subject of a massive war. Many, many people get killed along the way of making a gram of cocaine. Like there’s serious deforestations for every few grams of cocaine there is a certain amount of deforestation that takes place to grow the crop. You’re buying into. All the money you pay is going towards serious organised crime. There is no cocaine sold by “nice people”. It’s all run by massive crime networks who do people trafficking. I don’t want to put money into that.

I’m not interested in funding killing people which is exactly what you do if you buy cocaine. And that’s another reason why I haven’t really gone near it since I had, I bought a few times just to see what it was like but I’m not interested in taking it anywhere regularly because it’s so linked to massive military campaigns.
 
Other drugs have these issues too but maybe not so much.  Cannabis does have some issues around trafficking. More cannabis is grown in the UK now, which is good, but there’s still human rights issues.  Some cannabis farms make use of trafficked people working for low wages or kept as slave labour.  Legalising and regulating cannabis production would remove the market for that, too.

Ecstasy as well, most of the ecstasy in the UK comes from the Netherlands. It’s mostly produced in mainland Europe or in labs in the UK and there’s not that many drug mules involves in the shipping process.
And so the ethical issue is another reason why I take the drugs that I do rather than cocaine.
 

Mixed views
Several were undecided about the legalisation of drugs. They agreed that legalisation would mean better control over what goes into drugs, making them less risky, and take away power from drug gangs. But on the other hand, they were worried about the negative impact of drugs, for example on mental health.
 

Chloe thinks it’s important to educate people on the scientific evidence about drugs. She‘s not sure where she stands on the legalisation of cannabis.

Chloe thinks it’s important to educate people on the scientific evidence about drugs. She‘s not sure where she stands on the legalisation of cannabis.

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
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At some point you said there is this lack of information to young people. That some drugs are not as harmful if they are taken or if they’re used in small quantities. Do you want to add something else about that?
 
I mean well it has, that kind of thing needs to be allowed to be made available because even just recently the head of the drugs scientific advisor in parliament being sacked because he said exactly that same thing. And they just didn’t like it. And I think with those sort of things and policies like that they’re more conscious about keeping a certain group of people happy. It’s coming across that they’re trying to do the right thing rather than what would actually be the right thing to do. Because I mean there’s a lot of people that, whether it be cannabis or heroin you’re a druggy, that’s it. Like it doesn’t matter like cannabis doesn’t do this and heroin’s like it is. They are all drugs and you are scummy dirty druggy. You’re from a council estate and.
 
There’s a lot of limiting beliefs around drugs that need to be lifted because it’s only when you can educate people properly that you can do that. Because it wouldn’t be. Like could you imagine like say for example a mum sitting with their kids and an advert came on saying, ‘Smoking one splif of cannabis isn’t actually going to kill you. If you take 3 pulls and put it down then you can monitor your own buzz and when you feel ok again take another 3 pulls.’ That would be like saying, ‘It’s ok to do that’ like it’s alright to take 3 pulls and put it down. Because people will interpret it differently depending on where they’ve come from. So there’s a lot of things around that. I don’t know how you could go about that.
 
But people need to start being open-minded about drugs I think because it’s not the. Drugs have been around from the beginning of time for millions and millions of years.
 
I don’t think that it (cannabis) is as harmful as some of the other drugs but the long term I think it is a very big problem because young people these days they don’t just use moderately. They don’t moderately use it. They are smoking it every day. They are smoking three to four spliffs every single day. And more young people are using it because of other media influences and things like that. And the cannabis itself that they’re smoking is a lot stronger because now it will be hard to find that hard rock hash form because everyone is smoking skunk and skunk is mostly chemicals. So yeah it’s a lot stronger and I do think it’s bad now. I mean I don’t think that. I think that it should be maybe. Well I don’t know where I stand on it because if it was made legal then it would be seen as to be, ‘Oh it’s ok you’re allowed to smoke it’. But where it is illegal it’s not being regulated. People are putting anything in it.  
 

Sam would like to understand more about the system they would put in place before agreeing to the legalisation of drugs. He says that people can still get hold of drugs, despite them being illegal. (Played by actor)

Sam would like to understand more about the system they would put in place before agreeing to the legalisation of drugs. He says that people can still get hold of drugs, despite them being illegal. (Played by actor)

Age at interview: 28
Sex: Male
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People have committed suicide because of cannabis and stuff, you know. I don’t think people realise the actual dangers of just that drug. People act like it’s a soft drug and like it’s quite interesting when I talk about it with young people that actually do you realise it’s got the potential to be not a soft drug? I think you know, drugs affect everybody differently. What happened to me might not necessarily happen to the next person but then it might or something different. I’ve seen somebody who took ‘base’ a lot go completely off their head and she, they got locked up for their own good. Do you know what I mean? The more I think about it, this is a really weird experience but the more I think I’ve seen some really crazy shit. A lot of people losing their mind and that’s the thing. It.
 
Where do you stand on the legalisation of drugs or the legalisation of cannabis?
 
Oh god. I wouldn’t know what to say. People automatically think because I’m a drug taker or an ex-drug taker, sorry. Better make that clear, ex-drug taker that I would support the legalisation of drugs. I don’t know if I would. I can see the benefits because obviously there’d be some control over who gets what and how and. But then again people will still get what they want because they can now and it’s illegal.
 
So, you know, I don’t. Before I could say, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ I would have to understand the system that they were going to use in order to do that. I can see the benefits in some ways but then I’ve seen what happens to somebody addicted on heroin and I wouldn’t ever want to do that. If I said it was ok for heroin to be legalised I don’t know if I could live with myself, you know. I’ve seen somebody rob her family completely dry, get them in hundreds of thousands pounds of debt like. Put them, you know. I couldn’t be responsible for doing that to somebody. If I was to like, if we had a vote and I voted ‘yes’ on it I couldn’t do it.
 

But then again selling drugs, you know, if they made acid legal to try once or twice, you know, some people. But some people could go off the deep end on that you know. So like I said, drugs affect different people differently. So I, it would depend on how they were going to police it and to be honest they would never police it. Look at mephedrone that’s a new one isn’t it. Was legal, started to make it illegal now, but people are still buying it and getting it now, you know. When it was legal loads of people were abusing it and now it’s illegal people are still abusing it. So what difference does it make? Do you know what I mean? It’s just although the government would be better off from a tax perspective if they start taxing drugs. It’s like alcohol though, you know, really they should reduce the sales of alcohol actively but they don’t because of the massive amount of tax they’ve got on it. So do we really want them in the same situation with drugs. You know, we’re making a lot of money off drugs so. I don’t know. Sorry it’s a confusing subject for me. I sort of feel, you know, betraying my friends who completely disagree with me like, you know what I mean. And then my new self is sort of saying, you know, you should ban it. But then really [sigh] I wouldn’t know. I don’t know. 

Young people also talked about the difference between what they saw as ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs. Cannabis was seen by some as a ‘soft’, more socially acceptable, drug so they could see no harm in legalising it. They thought it necessary to draw a line for other, ‘harder’ drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and heroin though.  They felt that these drugs were more likely to wreck lives and that more people would take them if legalised.
 

Stephanie used to smoke a lot of cannabis. She thinks most drugs shouldn’t be legalised but sets cannabis apart from the others.

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Stephanie used to smoke a lot of cannabis. She thinks most drugs shouldn’t be legalised but sets cannabis apart from the others.

Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
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Where are you on the debate of legalising drugs?
 
I think the only one I would even slightly be okay with is Cannabis, but, and even though I mean I did stop smoking that continuingly for years I’ve only ever, every now and again I’ll try it now, I don’t feel very strongly about it being legalised really either way, I don’t really mind because I don’t do it anymore so it doesn’t really affect me. I don’t know if it would have much of a difference on whether people would want to do it or not I don’t think the illegal thing is the thing that puts people off.
 
No?
 
No I don’t think so, I mean maybe I should, actually that’s maybe I suppose if some, some people wouldn’t, would be very scared to be caught by the Police that kind of thing, that wasn’t a thing that put me off, if I was to ever, I think it’s more just the, doing something bad that would put kids off more I think than maybe it being illegal, but saying that I suppose you are quite scared of the Police catching you so, maybe yeah, just missed it, just missed that [laughs] yeah I don’t really know how I feel about the, I don’t, I mean I don’t really care either way again because I’m not really interested anymore.
 
Well what about the recreational drugs and hard drugs?
 
I don’t think any of them should be legalised no. No because I just think, personally I don’t think they’re very good, and I think if, it’s bad enough people who have a hard time, I mean I think as far as I can see you have to really source them before you could find them, you know, you’d have to, it takes a bit of planning, so I think if they were readily available people would just be taking them whenever, I mean a lot of the time I’ve seen people, the only reason they’re not taking ten more or whatever, you know, is because they’re not there, if they were they probably would, so I think if they were readily available people would be, doing more damage to themselves you know? 
  

Last reviewed July 2018.
Last updated: July 2018.

 
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