Experimentation among adolescents is nothing new. For the current generation of secondary schoolchildren, exposure to displays of positive drug and alcohol use via TV, streaming services, music and social media is commonplace. Add to that peer pressure, a desire to explore the incoming adult world, instances of childhood trauma and the need just to simply take a break from the stresses of life, it is inevitable that some young people will take drugs, smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. 

The NHS has recently published its biannual study of English secondary schoolchildren entitled, “Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England, 2021”. Children who participate in the study are asked questions that cover topics that relate to drug and alcohol use, and tobacco smoking, such as; prevalence, habits, attitudes, and wellbeing. The survey probes into how children meet other people outside the home and analyses what impact this has on their substance use.

The survey showed that cannabis was the drug pupils are most likely to have taken in the last year, with 6% overall saying they had done so in 2021, a figure that increased to 19% among 15 year olds. Pupils were almost twice as likely to have been offered cannabis than any other substance, with 17% of pupils having been offered the drug.

Young cannabis consumers predominantly obtained the drug from friends (61%) or a drug dealer (21%). The ease with which drugs could be obtained increased with age; 48% of 15 year olds thought it would be easy to get illegal drugs, compared with 5% of 11 year olds.

The study showed a drop in drug use overall in 2021 compared to the previous survey, however, this could be a knock-on effect of the coronavirus pandemic, as children had less opportunity to socialise. 18% of pupils reported they had ever taken drugs, compared to 24% in 2018. However, the prevalence of cannabis use among school children highlights the need for an alternative to hardline prohibition.

Jason Reed is the Co-Executive Director of LEAP UK, an organisation made up of serving and retired law enforcement figures campaigning for drug law reform. He believes prohibition is a key factor in childhood cannabis use, stating, “We have a system that is wholly reliant on banning a substance for every member of society, if that ban is failed to be upheld by society then children are inherently more likely to have access. This universally demonstrates the futility of prohibitions. 

“Blanket bans simply cannot be policed with any degree of reality. The consequences speak for themselves, with children having ready access to substances that lack any real quality or control. One of the reasons politicians give for their support on failed prohibitive policies is that of safeguarding our children, but common sense tells us that any lack of social responsibility and regulation will mean that children have ready access to cannabis and they only need the right connection and money.”

Childhood cannabis drug use is often associated with physical, mental and developmental problems, both during adolescence and later in life. Researchers have linked high-strength cannabis use during childhood to instances of psychosis, while other studies suggest a link between brain development problems and adult addiction issues with childhood drug and alcohol use.

In countries and territories where cannabis has been legalised for adult consumption, studies regularly show that teen use decreases. Analysis published in 2021 by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that regulated adult cannabis markets led to lower cannabis users amongst adolescents. A 2022 study conducted by researchers affiliated with Michigan State University found that cannabis use in under-age people does not increase in relation to a state’s adoption of a legal adult-use market. Similar studies in Canada, where cannabis laws were changed in 2018, found that post legalisation the percentage of those aged 15 to 17 who use the drug dropped from 20% to 10%. Reed agrees that regulation would be a better solution, “We have emerging evidence from across the globe with legal cannabis markets and their successes in preventing children from having access. Why aren’t we implementing sensible regulations to do the job where strict drug laws have utterly failed?”

Ian Hamilton, a senior professor in addiction at the University of York also believes more needs to be done to reduce harm among school children, telling leafie, “It is encouraging to see the fall in cannabis use among young people but there is still a significant number reporting that they use the drug regularly. As the majority of them will be combining cannabis with tobacco in a joint this will be their introduction to tobacco, even though they wouldn’t consider themselves as smokers. It is critical that we decouple tobacco and cannabis as the former is known to carry substantial health risks. This would be easier if drugs like cannabis were regulated as public health agencies could provide education and interventions to help do this.”

Cannabis most used drug by school pupils in England, NHS survey shows

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