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Zero Tolerance’s Failure: UK Drug Use Among Young Adults

Staff writer Sean Harvey discusses drug policy in the UK. He cites new research into the effect on young people and argues that there must be a better way.

Drug use amongst young people in the UK has dramatically risen following the pandemic. A report by The Mix, a charity focussing on the health of under 25s, details a significant increase in drinking, smoking and drug use amongst 18–25-year-olds. 1 in 3 young people have used an illegal drug, of any class, in the last 12 months, a 22% increase from 2021. The regularity of drug use has also increased; 16% of young people used drugs once a week in 2021, a number which has now risen to 22%.

However, this has not necessarily been due to the fact that socialising and partying has resumed post-pandemic. Whilst most drug use is centred around leisure, The Mix reported that 1 in 5 drug users take drugs to escape the problems of the real world, a self-medication for reality. With an often depressing world, this is not surprising – young people use drugs to try to forget what’s going on, as a way of being calm in our current maelstrom. Yet many young people who want to address their own unhealthy dependence report that there is little support available to them.

At King’s College London (KCL), there is a well-established support network for students who are struggling. The reported success of well-being services can be mixed from student to student. KCL’s drug policy is currently under-review, but their last statement references a need to create a support system while maintaining compliance with drug laws. Their aim is to create a “safe, legal and productive environment” on campus. However, under the B3 Misconduct regulations, King’s has the ability to reprimand students, with varying significance, for committing any criminal offence.

The criminality of drugs is also a contentious and often grey area. Policymakers seem to have admitted defeat in the ‘war on drugs’, as there has been a general lenience towards their use in the UK. This is as much a resignation to pervasiveness of the problem as an express policy choice. There have been some recent political attempts to challenge this passivity in government.

Yet casual possession and use of cannabis and ketamine is often tolerated by police, who instead focus more on cracking down on distribution networks such as County Lines. However, there are still people in power fighting against this acceptance. The Police Commissioner for Dorset believes that cannabis should be reclassified as a Class A drug to reflect, what he believes, to be its danger to young people and society.

Personally, I disagree. The belief that these illegal drugs, most ubiquitously cannabis, have grave dangers to young people is no longer supported by much evidence. The Economist’s graph from 2019, with data taken from the Lancet medical journal, clearly illustrates that cannabis’s effects on Britain pales in comparison with alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine (which Commissioner Sidwick believed cannabis to be equally as dangerous).

These unhelpful taboos limit the potential discourse of safety and rehabilitation for drug-affected young people, as happens in the Netherlands or Portugal. Opening up the discussion will lead to a far safer environment for young people to make informed and safe decisions, and reduce the stigma around accessing support.

Like everything in life, there are downsides to every decision, and the failure to delve into a balanced debate can be incredibly dangerous – especially on the topic of drugs. Research seems to suggest that there are safer ways to unwind than a £6 London pint. It’s time to discuss something new.

Second year International Development


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