Definitely, Maybe Not? The Normalisation of Recreational Drug Use Amongst Young People

Increasing numbers of social scientists, policy makers and other social commentators suggest that drug use has become a relatively common form of behaviour among young people who accept it as a ‘normal’ part of their lives. Although there is quite strong empirical evidence that the proportion of young people using drugs at some point in their lives is growing, there is little evidence to support the contention that it is so widely accepted as to be normal. Drawing on quantitative and qualitative data, we develop a critique of what we term the ‘normalisation thesis’. In doing so we argue that this thesis exaggerates the extent of drug use by young people, simplifies the choices that young people make, and pays inadequate attention to the meaning that drug use has for them. Crucially, we argue that in their reliance on large-scale survey data the main proponents of the normalisation thesis pay insufficient attention to the normative context within which drug use occurs.
Key words: drugs, neutralisation techniques, normalisation, subculture, youth.

The data presented by Parker et al. (1995) and Graham and Bowling (1995) indicate that, for young people, having used a drug is a far from unusual experience. By the time that the majority of Parker et al (1995) respondents were 15, 42% of them indicated that they had, at some point in their lives, used at least one illicit drug. This increased to 51% by the time they were 16. Turning to the national position, over a third (36%) of the ISRD respondents (all of whom were aged 14—21) reported ever having used a drug (Graham and Bowling 1995).

Given that proponents of the normalisation thesis have tended to concentrate on measures of lifetime use (whether a respondent has used an illicit drug at some time in their life) it is worth noting that the extent to which such measures illuminate young people’s drug using habits is limited. Arguments based on such measurements should be interpreted extremely cautiously. The inflexibility of lifetime measures means that they cannot capture the processual character of people’s drug-use (Becker 1963). As a consequence, not only are they unable to distinguish one-off use from regular polydrug use but they also fail to distinguish between current and ex-users. Given these problems it is reasonable to suggest that measures based on shorter time-frames — such as the previous year or month — are likely to provide somewhat more reliable estimates of the extent of current or regular use. Parker et al. (1995) included questions about drug use during the year and the month prior to each of their surveys, and the ISRD asked respondents about their drug use during the previous year (1992).

Inevitably, data concerning drug-related behaviour during the last year/month give a more conservative picture than those based on lifetime measures. As Figure 1 shows, in Parker et al’s second and third surveys, when the majority of the respondents were aged 15 and 16 respectively, drug use during the previous year was limited to approximately two fifths of the sample. During the month preceding the respective surveys, it was limited to about a quarter of them. Following their third survey, Parker et al. (1995:19) estimated that 20 per cent of respondents (approximately three quarters of past month users) were ‘regular users’.
We have already mentioned the fact that Parker and colleagues recognise that their research is unlikely to be typical of the national picture. The situation relating to the nation as a whole is outlined in Figure 2. According to the ISRD slightly less than a third of males and less than a quarter of females aged 14—21 used drugs in 1992 and could, therefore, be thought of as ‘current’ users (Graham and Bowling 1995). While respondents aged 18—21 were, by some way, the most likely to have used a drug in 1992, less than half of the males and less than a quarter of the females in this age category had done so.

As indicated earlier, it is the work of Howard Parker and colleagues (Parker et al. 1995; Measham et al. 1994) that has been most influential in this area. Beginning in 1991 their major study to date involved three surveys conducted annually which recorded the drug-related experiences of a group of 776 young people who were first contacted during the penultimate year of their compulsory education when most were 14 years old. These surveys were administered in the metropolitan North-West of England, an area which includes Manchester, the ‘rave capital of Great Britain’ (Coffield and Gofton 1994:5), and the researchers have acknowledged the dangers of extrapolating from their data to the national situation. Referring to the area’s higher than average levels of smoking, drinking and heroin use, they note that ‘we must therefore anticipate that young people from this region are likely to report higher levels of illicit drug use during the l990s than their peers elsewhere’ (Parker et al. 1995:21). Although the location of their research is therefore in this sense ‘unusual’, this is not the basis of our criticism of the conclusions they draw.

In order to reflect upon the national situation we have drawn, in some detail, upon the domestic element of the International Self—Report Delinquency Study (ISRD) which, focusing on the 14-21
age range, is the most recent survey of a representative sample of the nation’s youth to consider drug use (Howling et al. 1994;Graham and Bowling 1995). We will also consider, albeit more briefly, the evidence from the 1994 British Crime Survey, although it should be noted that this focuses on people aged 16 and above and is not a specialist youth survey (Ramsey and Percy 1996). Although Parker et al. (1995) survey, the ISRD and British Crime Survey vary in the details of their administration, they are similar in that the drugs components of these surveys are all based on a self-completion approach in which respondents are provided with a list of drugs or illicit substances and asked about their knowledge and use of them.

Although more illuminating than measures of lifetime use, those which focus on behaviour during the last year or month are of limited use if they fail to distinguish between different types of drug. Measures which aggregate a variety of different drugs simplify the decisions that young people make and fail to acknowledge the discerning approach many young people take towards drug use. That young people distinguish between different drugs is clearly reflected in their patterns of use. Both Parker et al. (1995) and the ISRD found that levels of use varied greatly by type of drug. Thus, reflecting its position as ‘undoubtedly the most widely used drug in the UK’ (ISDD 1994:28), cannabis had been used by 45 per cent of respondents to Parker et al’s (1995) third survey, when the majority of them were aged 16, and 33 per cent of ISRD respondents. At the other end of the popularity spectrum are heroin and cocaine. Lifetime use of cocaine was limited to 4 and 3 per cent of Parker et al’s (1995) respondents when they were aged 15 and 16 respectively, and 2 per cent of ISRD respondents. Heroin use was even more unusual: 3 and 1 per cent respectively of Parker et al’s respondents disclosed lifetime heroin use as did 1 per cent of ISRD respondents.The rise of the dance/rave scene (Redhead 1993) and its associated drug use has a special position within the normalisation thesis (Coffield and Gofton 1994; Measham et al. 1993). The late 1980s and early 1990s did witness an apparently significant increase in the use of ‘dance drugs’, which became a relatively important part of the youth drug scene (Measham 1993; Clements 1993). In the case of ecstasy and LSD, however, this increase started from a very low baseline (Clements 1993) and the popularity of these drugs can easily be overstated.
Even though LSD was the most popular dance drug among Parker et al’s (1995) respondents when they were aged 15 and 16 (and the second most widely used drug by them) it had only ever been used by approximately a quarter of them. In view of ecstasy’s high media profile it is worth noting that only one in twenty respondents to Parker a al’s (1995) third survey, when the majority of them were aged 16, had used this drug. Nationally, use of dance-drugs appears to be limited to a small sub-section of the youthful population.

pub. ‘Sociology’ Vol.31 No. 3. Aug 97

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