In the first part of this interview, All About Drugs and Young People (Part 1), JKP author, educator and counsellor Julian Cohen shared some of the insight and experience he has gained whilst working to educate young people about drugs over the past 30 years. In this second and final part, he talks about legal highs, how the internet has affected young people and drug use and offers more advice on what parents and professionals can do to support young people who are or may be using drugs.
6. In your experience, how significant is the advent of legal highs and the internet? How do you think they have impacted young people’s experiences of drugs and drug use?
Both are very significant. As I explain in some detail in my book there are now hundreds of different legal highs being sold in this country. They can sometimes be sourced from dealers who sell illegal drugs but the main supply is through the many and growing number of headshops in cities and larger towns, from other retail outlets including some garages and even car boots and over the internet. This means young people have much easier access to a wide range of relatively cheap drugs, often without any contact with drug dealers or putting themselves at risk of breaking the law.
Many legal highs will be unfamiliar to young people who use them and some have dangerous effects, especially if taken in large quantities and/or with other drugs. We have started to see more deaths related to legal highs, many it would seem when young people have not been clear about what they have taken, how much it is safe to take or the implications of combining use of legal highs with other drugs.
Buying drugs over the internet has increased significantly, especially, but not only, for legal highs. All it takes is a credit card order and the drugs are delivered in a package to your door by mail or courier very soon, possibly the next day. There is also a growing market for buying illegal drugs over the internet, often using encrypted websites that make it very difficult for the authorities to trace sellers or buyers. The internet is likely to become an increasing feature of drug supply and markets in the future.
Ease of availability of legal highs and of drugs through the internet raises serious questions about our existing drug laws because there are now so many ways to obtain drugs without breaking the law or by reducing the likelihood of being caught. Countries such as Portugal, Uruguay and New Zealand and also some American states are beginning to experiment with new and less draconian drug controls. Hopefully, more informed debate about new ways of controlling drugs, and finding sensible ways of reducing the harm that can follow from using drugs, will develop in the UK.
7. Is addiction or dependency on drugs a common problem for young people? Why do you think some young people develop drug dependency?
The first thing I want to stress is that the majority of young people who use drugs have a good time and do not come to serious harm. Most go on to moderate use or give up altogether as they grow older and take on adult responsibilities. It is only a small minority of young users who become dependent on drugs.
I believe that drug use, in whatever form, is always functional. That is, rather than just thinking that drugs do things to people, people choose to use drugs, as they do, to obtain certain outcomes relating to increasing pleasure and relaxation and/or reducing distress, anxiety and pain.
A lot of people think of addiction or dependency as a lifelong disease or that certain people have ‘addictive personalities’ that mean they will inevitably become dependent and cannot do much about it. Having studied these issues for many years I do not think there is much good evidence to support these views, despite the fact that a lot of people believe them.
In contrast, I see dependent drug use as a symptom of deeper, underlying problems that people face. Dependency is an attempt by users to keep negative feelings about themselves, other people and the world around them at bay and to get through a life they are having difficulty coping with. It is a way of trying to deal with emotional distress and pain that is grounded in people’s past and current life experiences and situations. In the words of the author Bruce Alexander, dependent users experience a ‘poverty of the spirit’ and have become ‘dislocated’ from themselves, their communities and wider society.
8. What are some of the main things parents and professionals can do to support young people when it comes to drugs?
I have called one of the major parts of my book ‘Be Prepared’ and suggest ways both parents and professionals can help and support young people. The first thing I emphasise is the need to inform ourselves and to learn facts, rather than myths. I also stress that both parents and professionals can be proactive in helping to make sure that young people have a good drug education. Ideally we can learn alongside young people and also from them as well. It is also important to be aware of, and to question, our own use of drugs and our feelings and attitudes about drug use.
Most of all we need to develop our ability to listen to, and openly communicate with, young people, rather than lecture them. I also suggest that both parents and organisations that work with young people will benefit by negotiating sensible drug rules and sanctions, rather than imposing them or being overly draconian.
To ‘be prepared’ it also helps if we anticipate situations where young people may be using in ways we find acceptable and/or having difficulties with their drug use. This includes being clear about whom you might want or need to inform and involve, about any legal obligations you may be faced with and, for professionals, clarity about the boundaries of confidentiality. Both parents and professionals will find it useful to know how to make a sensible assessment of what is happening, why a young person may be using as they are and what risks are involved. It is also useful to know some basic drug-related first aid and about where and how to access specialist help for young people and also for yourself.
We need to be realistic about situations when young people are involved with drugs and the changes we can expect of them. Where young people are likely to continue to use drugs, whatever we may hope or say to them, it is crucial to adopt a harm reduction approach whereby we can help to ensure their safety and keep channels of communication open. I cover all these issues and more in my book.
9. How can we help young people who develop serious problems with their drug use?
As I explained before, if young people develop serious problems with their drug use they will be experiencing significant difficulties in their lives. If we are going to help them we need to empathise with them, listen to what they have to say, understand the difficulties they are experiencing in their life, help them to explore their options and help them to make realistic changes. We might also sometimes have to hold up our hands and appreciate ways we may have contributed to the problems they are facing.
Rather than castigating or demonising them we need to support them as best as we can. Ideally we will do so in the ways I have already described above and by helping them to access good, specialist services, when needed. However, we should appreciate that young people cannot be helped by such services unless they are willing to engage with them.
It can be difficult for us to be consistent in our support for young people who have developed serious drug problems. It can be very taxing, especially for parents. I have devoted a specific chapter to this and also written chapters giving advice about what we can do if young people become violent or steal money or possessions to buy drugs or supply drugs and situations where young people may be using drugs but do not see any harm in it and will not stop.
In such situations it will help if we can avoid panicking, are patient and realistic about what we can expect from young people. It is important to be clear about our own boundaries regarding what is and is not acceptable to us and what we are, and are not, prepared to do for young people. All this can be very difficult to do. There are no magic wand solutions. So I want to emphasise that neither parents nor professionals are on their own and that, where necessary, they should seek support for themselves so that they are better able to help young people.
But in a wider sense it is not just down to parents and professionals. If we are to reduce the number of young people who experience serious problems with their drug use we need to make sure that we have appropriate and well-resourced education and support services that engage well with young people. I am concerned that funding for such services has been declining. And we also need to address wider community, societal and political issues so that all young people have opportunities to develop meaningful and fulfilling lives in the future.
10. What did you learn from writing the book?
I learnt more about young people’s drug use and realistic and practical ways of responding to and supporting them. There is always more to learn. The book involved a lot of research using published sources and also talking with people. It was a challenge to organise my ideas and to reflect on, and learn from, my personal and professional experiences. Above all I had to question what I think and believe and why.
The process of writing re-enforced in me that we still too often focus on substances to the detriment of understanding and having empathy for people – young people, parents and professionals – and the reasons and ways we use drugs and also respond to other people’s use. In this sense it is important that we see drug use as more of a symptom, rather than a cause, of the issues we face in our lives.
You can read a free extract from Julian’s book, All About Drugs and Young People, in this blog post.
Julian Cohen is a writer, educator, counsellor and consultant who has specialised in drug and sex education work with children, young people, parents, carers and professionals for nearly 30 years. He has written extensively on drugs and young people, ranging from teaching and training packages to educational games, pamphlets and books for young people, parents and professionals. Find out more about Julian including his training courses and consultancy work on his website, here: http://www.juliancohen.org.uk/