Youth and drugs

Last weekend I was on Radio New Zealand’s Sunday programme talking to Megan Wheelan, Richie Hardcore, and Nadia Freeman about youth and drugs in New Zealand.

It was a great panel discussion which ranged far and wide, and it got me thinking about some things. Have a listen on the link below first and then further (extensive) thoughts are below that.


The first thing is that there are a million reasons why people take drugs.

But it’s mainly because it’s fun and it makes you feel good.

There are some exceptions like huffing, but for the most part people don’t do things that make them feel miserable, at least not initially. With young people it’s a pretty crazy time. They’re testing the limits of their body and mind, they’re exploring themselves, and they’re also under a lot of pressure with puberty, high school, etc. Add into that frontal lobes still forming and general rejection of authority it’s no wonder more young people don’t take drugs. We’ve really got to move away from this idea that there is something intrinsically wrong or some moral failing with a person who takes drugs — it’s actually pretty normal behaviour.

In the discussion we spent a lot of time talking about alcohol. Which is fine, it is probably the most widely used drug among young New Zealanders. There was a question in there about separating alcohol and other drugs out mainly because many people think of them as different things. They are different in some respects — alcohol is legal and therefore quality controlled and regulated, there is less stigma attached to alcohol use, and of course, alcohol does far more harm than most other drugs combined.

That stigma issue is important too. It’s fairly socially acceptable to pull out a drink, but if I had pulled out a needle during the discussion and proceeded to inject, people would have been like OMG!

One thing that we didn’t really touch on in the discussion was how likely young New Zealanders are to use drugs.

It’s pretty bloody likely.

Well over 90%, verging on 100%, of people under 20 use alcohol at least once and many of them binge drink like there was no tomorrow. They’re also pretty likely to smoke cannabis. Somewhere around 66% will try an illicit drug and 80% of young people will try cannabis. Which once again reinforces that drug taking is pretty normal behvaiour.

One thing to point out here is that these stats are well out of date. They pre-date the emergence of most New Psychoactive Substances and their widespread availability in both retail stores and online. I would hazard a guess to say that the rates of drug use have actually gone up since the Christchurch and Dunedin cohort studies. This is a signal to the Ministry of Health and other drug-focussed organisations that as a country we need to pull finger because without good data we can’t even begin to address the problem (or even really tell if it is a problem, who knows drug use might have rapidly declined and we’re all good).

Access is a huge issue too. It’s pretty bloody easy to get drugs in New Zealand. Alcohol is every where and it’s cheap. Cannabis is everywhere. Synthetics can be purchased online 24/7 and shipped straight to your home. Diverted prescription drugs are pretty easy to come by too, especially for people looking for Tramadol or Ritalin. And you may think that harder drugs — the methamphetamines and such — would be harder to get, well maybe. A consequence of relying on blackmarkets to get your weedfix is that you come in contact with some pretty shady people who will offer you something else, or may even put something else into your 50 bag without you knowing. You start to make connections and eventually you might just take them up on that offer of PCP. Not always, but that pathway is there.

The drugs young people tend to use are pocket-money prices too. A cannabis tinny (1–2 joints) has remained a static $20-$25 for as long as most people can remember (amount has varied, but not by much), you can pick up ritalin for $5-$10 a pill. Synthetics are cheaper than chips and available online as well as from dealers getting rid of the backlog since we re-banned all NPS. Even something like methadone is about $1 a mg! Huffing, pretty much comes down to price as well with aerosols being about the cheapest fix you can get and of course booze which you can pick up 20(ish) standard drinks for $15 or seventy-five cents a drink

NPS have once again become a problem. By taking them off the shelves we’ve created a black market and made the problems invisible. At a talk I went to last year with with Paul Quigley from Wellington Hospital A&E said the law was working. It had reduced harm, people knew what they were taking and could report it to them. I’m not sure what the A&E stats have been like since then — they’re probably still be lower than before the Psychoactive Substances Act — but as more and more chemicals flow through our pourous borders, one can only expect to see the harm caused by these substances to creep up again. Especially if this story from over the ditch is anything to go by.

But there is still mystery white powder and synthetic cannabis out there. Recently NBOM — a particularly insidious LSD alternative — was found to be being sold from a dairy and as said before, the wonderful world wide web provides easy and cheap access to an array of ‘research chemicals’. We need to move past the gut reactions we saw after the Psychoactive Substances Act was passed of protesting because there is a store selling DRUGS in the community. Better it is out in the open, the substances regulated, and help provided than forcing the problem underground.

And let’s face it: if you want drugs and you’re in your teens, you’re probably going to be able to find them. Even in rural towns there are always a few dealers for ever couple of hundred people.

So let’s be real about drugs: They’re cheap. They’re accessible. Young people want to do them. Young people don’t make the best decisions. Young people are going through a pretty stressful period. Young people are looking to test limits and defy rules. The drugs they generally do aren’t that harmful.

Copying is also another factor. Young people copy what they see their elders doing, so perhaps it’s not young people with a drug problem, it’s the older people and the reason we always get over the top headlines about young people using drugs is that older people are scared of the reflection on them.

While we should always be trying to delay first use (drugs + developing brains don’t mix), and that delay could be indefinitely, we shouldn’t be loading kids up with Reefer Madness scare tactics. Part of being real about drugs is having honest conversations with young people. If you give them honest information with a focus on harm reduction — like they’re now doing in Australia — then the chances are in the likely even that they do use, it won’t be so harmful or stigmatising and they won’t end up with a dependence problem. That means telling them scary things like if you’re gonna smoke weed, use a vaporiser — fewer particulates to mess up your lungs, if you’re going to inject do it with clean needles and even give them access to a needle exchange. It also means reducing the stigma around drug use so if they end up with a problem then they know where to go for help and they don’t feel ashamed asking for it. We also need to be telling them things about host responsibility: have food, water, and a sober person on hand. Basic things which mean if young people are going to do drugs they do them in the least harmful way possible.

This is a head-spin for those of us who went through one of those DARE-esque scared straight programmes at highschool. The evidence shows that these are actually counter productive. The education needs to be harm-reduction focussed and be part of a broader curriculum of health and well-being education.

I think it’s kind of weird that we look at the drug use of young people and extract it from everyone else. Drug use is predominately a health issue and it’s based on a societal level. It shouldn’t be treated as a criminal justice issue. Drug dependence is one of the only health problems we seek to solve by throwing people in jail. We don’t lock up Type II diabetics, do we? We need to change this so we actually do something crazy like, I dunno, help people.


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