Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK (DP106)

Students for Sensible Drug Policy welcome the welcome the Select Committee’s enquiry into drug policy and hope that this will prove a useful opportunity for debate and dialogue around an area of policy which has a great impact on the lives of young people today.

Our report focuses on the impact of current drug policy on youth, particularly on the extent to which current drug policy is “grounded in science, health, security and human rights”.

We are happy to provide further advice or give oral evidence if necessary.


Case studies of interviews with young people from a variety of backgrounds have been collected and are provided alongside a critical synthesis of data on the impacts of current drug policies on students and young people. Current punitive drug policy fails to protect young people and students from the very real harms of drugs. Drug use amongst young people and students is a normalised part of everyday life—drugs are easily accessible despite the illegal nature of their supply, and largely because of the illegal nature of the supply, drug related harms are increased. Young people are consistently denied the chance to meaningfully participate in drug policy dialogue and the design of drug user services which they have a stake in. Young people’s access to unbiased drugs education and harm reduction information is limited, and young people still face significant barriers to user services. Practical recommendations for action are made which ensure the health and human rights of young people who use drugs.

1. Introduction to the Witness

Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK is a grassroots network of campaigners in schools, colleges, universities and communities across the UK seeking to engage students and young people in honest debate around drugs, drug policy and harm reduction.

2. Current Drug Policy and its Impact on Youth

2.1 What access do young people have to drugs?

2.1.1 The 2010–11 British Crime Survey reported that 36.3% of adults aged 16 to 60 in England and Wales had admitted to using an illicit drug within their lifetime, rising to 40.1% when considering those aged 16 to 24.1 8.8% of adults aged 16 to 60 in England and Wales had admitted to using illicit drugs within the last month, rising to 23.0% and 18.4% when considering 16–19 and 20–24 year olds, respectively. (See Figure 2.1 below from Smith and Flately 2011)

2.1.2 Fuller (2011) reports that in 2010, 18% of school pupils aged 11 to 15 years old admit having used an illicit drug within their lifetimes, and 7% within the last month. Older age groups admit to higher levels of drug use. (See Figure 2.2 below2). Ogilvie et al (2005) report that around a third of 13 year olds and two thirds of 15 year olds perceive illicit drugs in general as “fairly or very easy to obtain”.3 79% of young people aged 11–19 said that they could obtain cannabis within the hour, with an additional 11% reporting that they could get a supply of cannabis within the same day—often within school.4

2.1.3 Illegal drugs are very accessible to young people, and many under 18 year olds find it easier to get hold of illegal drugs than alcohol and tobacco. One respondent, a 14 year old school student from Manchester said:

You can sometimes rely on your parents to buy you the odd bit of booze, but if you can’t find an adult to get fags or drink for you it’s easy to get your hands on a bit of weed or mephedrone. It’s not like dealers ask for ID.5

2.1.4 The use of less harmful drugs (mainly cannabis, MDMA and ketamine) is normalised as a part of youth culture, across all ages. Whilst the use of more harmful drugs such as heroin is less common, respondents indicated that heroin use is not unheard of amongst school and college students. A 17 year old, female college student from Leeds said:

I remember there were a couple of kids in school who would start unprovoked fights with people so that they could be sent out of school in order that they can take smack somewhere.6

2.1.5 In some circumstances, it is possible to quantify the risks and harms of drug taking, if factors such as purity and potency of substances are known. Due to the unregulated nature of drugs supply the ability to access risk information when taking drugs is limited, increasing the risks people take with their health. To quote the former executive director of the International Aids Society, Craig McClure:

Of course, the harms associated with some drugs are worse than others. Sometime these are due to the degree of addictiveness of a particular drug. But most of the harms are due to the way that a particular drug is acquired (for example, in a dark alley versus from a pharmacy), the way in which it is used (as a pill, for example, versus smoking, snorting, or injecting), and, even more importantly, the way in which society treats people who use drugs.7

2.2 Access to adequate drugs education

2.2.1 Respondents indicated that there is a lack of consistency in the drugs education received in schools and colleges, with an abstinence only approach to drugs being relatively commonplace. A 17 year old male college student from Burnley reported:

In school we were told the horror stories about drugs, but to us they just seemed far-fetched; we knew the teachers were trying to mislead us by talking about the worst case scenario, because we all knew people who had taken each drug (or had taken it ourselves) without ending up dead or crazy.8

2.2.2 The view that current drugs education is far-fetched was relatively universal in our research and seemed to stem from a lack of coverage about positive or uneventful “everyday” drug experiences which young people saw as the norm. This is an area of great concern as it leads to some young people disregarding important information and taking risks with their health.

2.2.3 Many respondents felt let down by the lack of reliable information offered in schools, colleges and universities for those who do make the choice to take illegal drugs. A 15 year old female school student from Birmingham said:

A few weeks ago in a pastoral class about drugs I asked the teacher which method of taking heroin was the safest. I was told my question was inappropriate and threatened with a detention if I carried on… I don’t think this was a useful way of dealing with a genuine question about the relative harms of different types of drug use.9

2.2.4 92% of school pupils in Wakefield said that advice on how to reduce the harms associated with drug use should be taught in schools, and 90% said that drugs education should allow a wider range of perspectives and include debates and discussions on drugs and drug policy. 9% of pupils felt that the standard of drugs education received so far was “good” and 20% of pupils felt that drugs education was “poor”, with a general trend of being more critical with age (presumably correlating with increasing real-world experiences of drugs).10

2.2.5 Whilst there are areas of good practices in some schools, colleges, and universities, inconsistent and inadequate signposting to harm reduction services, including mental health counsellors and education services is common. Many students are unnecessarily suspended or excluded from educational institutions for drug use, even if their drug use occurs off campus on their own time. Students caught with drugs should be informed of local harm reduction services and given support if they need it, and left alone if their drug use is non-problematic.

2.3 Participation in decision making and debate

2.3.1 Many people who use drugs feel that they have little ownership of the services that they rely on, as they are denied opportunities to actively engage with the design, implementation and continued evaluation of drug user services. This is especially the case for younger people, who sometimes feel “patronised” when in treatment and “fobbed off” when offering suggestions.11

2.3.2 The inclusion of service user representatives in Drug and Alcohol Action Teams (DAATs) is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but people who take on this role often feel like they are tokenised and do not feel empowered to take a leading role in discussions and dialogue between service users and providers.12 People that use all drugs services, including drugs education services, need to be empowered and listened to so that they can meaningfully engage in the decision making that affects them.

2.3.3 Young people who wish to engage in drug policy dialogue within schools, colleges, university campuses and the wider community are frequently met with dismissal. This is particularly the case for schools and colleges but it is not uncommon when organising on university campuses. A respondent from Keele University said:

Although I was acknowledged positively by the students, the response by some sabbatical officers (in the students’ union) and the university establishment was one of non-engagement, active dismissal and suppression… actively preventing harm reduction information from being made available without justification… causing the welfare of students to suffer.13

2.4 Access to Healthcare

2.4.1 Harm reduction treatment is both cost-effective and can be valuable in ensuring the health, dignity and human rights of drug users. For every pound spent on harm reduction, £2.50 is saved in criminal justice, health and social costs.14 Young people can face significant barriers to accessing harm reduction services and advice. Barriers to treatment include: inadequate signposting to services, fears over needing parental consent to access treatment, and denial of services by staff due to their age (usually occurring at pharmacy based needle exchanges).

2.4.2 Young people need dedicated harm reduction services with specialist staff. If adult drug user services have to meet the needs of young people, then separate staff, venues and times should be used in order to create a less intimidating space. Consent should be required from the young person at all times, and where possible, young people should be able to access harm reduction services without parents having to be informed.

2.5 Criminalisation

2.5.1 Approximately 15% of the current prison population have been charged for drug related offenses.15 The proportion of young people (aged 15–20) incarcerated for drug related offenses is lower at 7%.16 In 2010, nearly 80,000 people in England and Wales were found guilty of or cautioned for possession of an illegal drug, of which 24,000 were young people.17 There is no evidence to suggest that the risk of criminal sanctions acts as a deterrent to drug use.18 The current cost of imprisonment stands at £42,900 per prisoner, per annum.19

2.5.2 Criminal convictions can have massive negative effects on young peoples’ lives, affecting their ability to travel, get a mortgage or insurance, find work, or enter into education. Often criminal convictions lead to a “vicious cycle” of criminality, as young people cannot find legitimate work and often have to resort to illegal behaviour as an economic survival strategy. Currently the reoffending rates stand at 50%20. One respondent, a 22 year old drug dealer from Sheffield said:

I’ve been looking for ages for a normal job but after getting a criminal conviction I really can’t find any decent work. I can’t afford to live on the dole and look after my kid, so I don’t have anything else I can do besides deal drugs. I want to be able to go to university some day but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to.21

2.5.3 One-quarter of young male offenders in prison are young fathers and one in five women prisoners were living at home with dependent children at the time of imprisonment.22 Young people are indirectly negatively affected by drug laws when parents, guardians or siblings are incarcerated for drug offences.

3. Recommendations for Action

The end to punitive drug policies which unnecessarily criminalise young people who use drugs, ie implement the decriminalisation of personal possession.

Place the control of drugs under a regulatory framework which emphasises human rights in an evidence-based approach. For a practical idea of what this may look like, see After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation published by Transform.23

Increasing young people’s access to unbiased drugs education, including harm reduction advice.

Ceasing expulsion and suspension of students of all ages from educational institutions for drug use. Students who use drugs should be given support if they need it.

Ensure continued investment into youth services and programmes such as youth clubs which provide ways for young people to positively engage with their communities.

Increase needle exchange provision and establish supervised consumption and safe injection facilities in communities for drug users of all ages. Ensure the removal of barriers which impede young people who use drugs from accessing harm reduction services.

Ensure that young people who are affected by drug policy are allowed to actively engage in drug policy dialogue in all spheres of life; especially in educational institutions.

Ensure that young people who use drugs are allowed to actively engage in the process of design, delivery and evaluation of the harm reduction services they use.

January 2012

1 Smith, K and Flately, J (2011). Drug misuse declared: Findings from the 2010–11 British Crime Survey England and Wales. Home Office Statistical Bulletin 10–11 Home Office.

2 Fuller, E (2011). Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England—2010. The Health and Social Care Information Centre, Leeds. www.ic.nhs.uk/pubs/sdd10fullreport

3 Ogilvie, D et al (2005). Young people’s access to tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. BMJ 2005;331:393 www.bmj.com/content/331/7513/393.full

4 Duffy, M et al (2008). Cannabis supply and young people Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2008 available:

5 Interview with 14 year old male school student from Manchester, conducted November 2011—transcript available on request.

6 Interview with a 17 year old female college student from Leeds, conducted December 2011—transcript available on request.

7 McClure, C (2009). Forward. In: Steve Rolles. Ed After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Reform. Bristol: Transform Drug policy Foundation. pp xi–xiv.

8 Interview with 17 year old male college student from Burnley, conducted November 2011—transcript available on request.

9 Interview with 15 year old female school student from Birmingham, conducted December 2011—transcript available on request.

10 Hammerson, C. (2001). A research report into drugs education received by young people in years 7–12 in Wakefield District City of Wakefield Metropolitan District Council.

11 Interview with a 22 year old male service user from Manchester, conducted December 2011—transcript available on request.

12 Interview with a former service user rep from Leeds, conducted May 2011—transcript available on request.

13 Interview with a student from Keele University, conducted December 2011—transcript available on request.

14 Home Office (2009). The Drug Treatment Outcomes Research study (DTORS): Cost-effectiveness analysis. Home Office Research Report 25.

15 Berman, G (2011). Prison Population Statistics (November 2011). House of Commons Library

16 Berman, G (2011). Prison Population Statistics (November 2011). House of Commons Library

17 Ministry of Justice, Criminal Justice Annual Report 2010, Conviction Tables, Table A.4

18 Stevens, A and Reuter, P (2007). An Analysis of UK Drug Policy, UKDPC.

19 Smith, R (2007). Poverty and disadvantage among prisoners’ families. Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2007.

20 Ministry of Justice (2011). Local Adult Reoffending 1 October 2009–30 September 2010.

21 Interview with a 22 year old female from Sheffield—transcript available on request.

22 Berman, G (2011). Prison Population Statistics (November 2011). House of Commons Library

23 Rolles, S (2009). After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation. Transform Drug Policy Foundation

Prepared 8th December 2012