31, no. 3, 511-529 1997
DEFINITELY, MAYBE NOT? THE NORMALISATION
OF RECREATIONAL DRUG USE AMONGST YOUNG PEOPLE
and TIM NEWBURN
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.
It is only relatively recently that large-scale
surveys have been successfully utilised to measure drug use among
representative populations (inter alia Balding 1994; Mott and Mirrlees-Black
1993). Such surveys have shown that significant proportions of people
-especially young people -use prohibited drugs at some stage in their lives
(Ram say and Percy 1996). As a consequence of this, the traditional image of
drug use as a subterranean activity has been somewhat undermined. The change in
the status of such activities by young people was reinforced by the emergence
in the 1980s of a dance/rave culture in which certain specific forms of drug
use were allegedly central. Indeed, some commentators have, on the basis of the
emerging survey data, argued that drug use by young people is becoming so
common that it is no longer regarded as a 'deviant' activity by them. Put
another way, they claim that drug use among young people is becoming
normalised. We wish to challenge this view- one we describe as the
'normalisation thesis' -and contend that far more has been read into the survey
data than is warranted. Drug use among young people, we will argue, has some
distance to travel before it assumes the status of a 'normalised' activity.
What is meant by 'normalisation'? According to
Becker (1963: 8) deviance is produced through 'the application by others of
rules and sanctions to an "offender" '. Therefore, as Erikson (1964:
11) puts it: 'the critical variable in the study of deviance, then, is the
social audience rather than the individual actor, since it is the audience
which eventually determines whether or not any episode or behaviour or any
class of episodes is labelled deviant.' This emphasis on the contingent nature
of deviance' is clearly reflected in the process of normalisation. An audience
can, by its reaction, alter the meaning of apparently 'deviant' activities so
that 'certain kinds of deviancy may, indeed, become so normalised that they are
no longer managed as deviant' (Rock 1973: 84). The extent of this redefinition
can vary. Cavan (1966: 18), for example, developed the term 'normal trouble' to
refer to 'improper activities that are frequent enough to be simply shrugged
off or ignored'. Rock (1973: 80) described a fuller process when he argued
that, instead of simply 'assuming non-deviant forms', deviance may become 'the
standard, taken-for- granted substance and form of acts within the setting'. In
order, then, to argue that the status of a form of behaviour has moved from
being 'deviant' to being 'normal', it is necessary to show that as well as
being widespread, this form of behaviour has become accepted as normal by the
The 'normalisation thesis' was outlined in its most
straightforward and authoritative form by Parker and colleagues (1995:26) when
they claimed that 'for many young people taking drugs has become the norm' and
went on to predict that 'over the next few years, and certainly in urban areas,
non drug- trying adolescents will be a minority group. In one sense they will
be the deviants'. The explanation of contemporary drug use offered by these
authors is underpinned by a subcultural perspective in which the liberal
permissive- ness of youth culture is contrasted with the conservative
restrictiveness of the adult world. In this way, they have referred, for
example, to 'the normalisation of recreational drug use amongst English
adolescents and the adult outrage it engenders' (1995: 310).
While Measham et al. (1994) and Parker et al. (1995)
have concentrated on behaviour, the normalisation thesis has also been endorsed
by social scientists adopting a more attitudinal focus. Coffield and Gofton,
for example, having sought to 'enter the subjective world of young drug takers'
(1994:1) wrote of the 'ubiquity of drugs among the young' and claimed that
'drug taking is. . . part and parcel of the process of growing up in
contemporary Britain'. Reflecting the subcultural basis of the normalisation
thesis, they went on to claim that while drug use is seen as being
unproblematic by most young people it is seen as a problem by 'their
uncomprehending parents', ...their largely uninformed teachers and. .the
police' (1994:3). Similarly, Hirst and McCamley-Finney argued that young people
are 'constantly surprised at adults' perceptions of drugs as something
dangerous or unusual as, for most of them, they are part of their life' and
suggested that there is a need 'for a reappraisal of how adults react to young
people's drug use, which recognises an unfolding process of normalisation'
Social scientists are not the only commentators to
claim that drug use is becoming normalised among the young. Janet Paraskeva,
then Director of the National Youth Agency, speaking to the 1995 London Drug
Policy Forum Conference argued that 'cannabis use by young people is not
deviant behaviour. If drug education is to have a chance of success we must
separate the soft drug culture embraced by so many young people from the hard
drug culture which threatens us all' (quoted in Pike 1995). More contentiously,
Colin Wiseley, a West Yorkshire based drugs worker, has argued that
normalisation has extended beyond the 'soft drug culture' and that 'heroin has
become fashionable and acceptable amongst the young' (quoted in Johnston 1996).
Such opinions are increasingly typical of much media discourse surrounding drug
use. Following the publication of Parker et al.'s (1995) most recent report,
the Guardian noted the 'opening of a new generation gap' and claimed that 'drug
taking has become an integral part of youth culture and a significant part of
the lives even of schoolchildren' (Boseley 1995). Similarly, in relation to the
death of Leah Betts, the same newspaper reported that 'an underground movement,
which started in 1988 with the advent of house music to this country, has
almost invisibly expanded into a giant culture. The secret is out; the adult
world has had thrust upon it the attitudes and lifestyle of a generation it
does not understand' (Hodgkinson 1995). Most recently the Daily Telegraph
headlined a report about new research: 'Drug taking has become a "teenage
rite of passage" , (Millward 1996).
Given the existence of large-scale surveys, we are
in a much better position than previously to estimate levels of illicit drug
use. It is not the data generated by these surveys, or the methods by which
they were collected, that we find problematic, it is the manner of their
interpretation. While we do not take issue with the view that there is much
that young people do that adults find puzzling, we do wish to challenge the
picture painted by some advocates of the normalisation thesis which stresses
the uniformity and apparent ubiquitousness of youthful drug use, and underplays
the tensions and divisions that continue to exist within youth culture(s).
The Extent and
Frequency of Young People's Drug Use
No discussion of the extent and frequency of young
people's drug use can begin without the now familiar disclaimer that definitive
answers are not available (ISDD 1994). Although the picture we have is
incomplete, it is clear that drug use and age are linked. Although rare during
the early teens, use of drugs increases sharply during the next couple of years
so that the late teens are consistently found to be a peak period of illegal
drug use (ISDD 1994). Research has also provided empirical support for the
frequently-made claim that drug use by young people is on the increase. Mott
and Mirrlees-Black (1993), for instance, note that the percentage of 16-19 year
olds reporting cannabis use more than doubled between 1983 and 1991. Similarly,
a 1992 survey of 15-24 year olds which replicated a 1989 survey, reported a
virtual doubling of the percentage of respondents admitting drug use (Measham
et at. 1993; Clements 1993).
As indicated earlier, it is the work of Howard
Parker and colleagues (Parker et at. 1995; Measham et at. 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 1990s than their
peers elsewhere' (Parker et at. 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 (Bowling et at. 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 (Rainsey and Percy 1996). Although Parker et
al.’s (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.
The data presented by Parker et at. (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.’s (1995) respondents were 15, 42 per cent of them indicated that they had,
at some point in their lives, used at least one illicit drug. This increased to
51 per cent by the time they were 16. Turning to the national position, over a
third (36 per cent) 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'.(l)
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.
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 percent of ISRD respondents. At the other end of the popularity spectrum
are heroin and cocaine. Lifetime use (2) 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, as Figures 3 and 4 show, 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 et 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. Lifetime ecstasy-use was disclosed by seven per cent
of ISRD respondents and, although amphetamine and LSD were the second most
widely used drugs within the sample, they had each only been used by 9 per cent
of respondents (Graham and Bowling 1995).
When discussing general patterns of drug use we made
the point that lifetime measures were too crude a tool for estimating levels of
current or regular drug use. This is equally applicable to discussions of the
use of specific substances. Once again, predictably, shorter time-frame
measures produce more conservative results. A third of the ISRD respondents who
had ever used cannabis, and nearly half of the respondents who had ever used
amphetamine, had not done so during the last year; the latter pattern also
holds for use of LSD and ecstasy. Thus, while use of cannabis during the last
year was limited to less than one in four of the ISRD respondents, use of each
of the 'dance' drugs was limited to approximately one in twenty of them. Figure
4 shows that even among the 18-21 year olds (i.e. those respondents who
revealed the highest levels of drug-taking) use of cannabis during the last
year was limited to less than half the males and to a fifth of the females, and
use of each of the 'dance' drugs hovered at around one in ten for males and one
in fifteen for females. (3)
Furthermore, of those respondents who had used
cannabis during the last year, a third of the males (32 per cent) and over a
half the females (55 per cent) had done so only 'once or twice', Of those who
had used a controlled drug other than cannabis in the last year, more than half
of them (56 per cent of males and 52 per cent of females) had done so only
'once or twice' (Graham and Bowling 1995:19).
What are we to conclude from these data? First, even
though there is clear evidence of increasing levels of drug use among young
people, both the extent and frequency are easily exaggerated through
over-reliance on lifetime measures. Second, when shorter time-frame measures
are utilised, strong evidence for the normalisation thesis is even more
elusive. Moreover, as we stated at the outset, convincing support for the
normalisation thesis would not only require evidence that drug use is extremely
widespread, but that usage is perceived to be normal. We turn now to ways in
which drug use is understood by young people.
The Meaning of
Drug Use in the Lives of Young People
At the heart of the normalisation thesis, we would
suggest, is a confusion between normalcy and frequency. There has been a
tendency for self-reported behaviour to be taken at face value and for
insufficient emphasis to be placed on the normative context of that behaviour.
Normative behaviour is not necessarily the most frequently occurring pattern
but is that which conforms to popular expectation. This distinction is,
however, often ignored in discourse about youthful drug use. It is important to
recognise that social norms, as prescriptions serving as common guidelines for
social action, are grounded in values and attitudes rather than behaviour
(Abercrombie et al. 1984). From this perspective what young people think is at
least as important as what they do and, while we may expect an individual's
behaviour to reflect their beliefs, this link is by no means always a clear one
(Fishbein and Ajzen 1975; Charlton 1982; Eiser, Vander Pligt and Friend 1983;
Nguyen-Van- Tam and Pearson 1986).
In considering the meanings that drug use has for
young people we draw on qualitative data we collected as part of an evaluation
of the peer approach to drug education for young people (Shiner and Newburn
1996). The study was conducted in the London borough of Newham, the most
deprived local authority in the country according to the 1991 Census (Willmott
1994). A total of fifty-two young people were interviewed during the course of
this study and, although the sample was a non-probability one, care was taken to
ensure that people from a broad range of groups were well represented within
it. Given the evidence that drug use increases fairly dramatically in the last
few years of compulsory schooling (ISDD 1994), the study concentrated on 15-16
year olds, though nearly a quarter of the respondents were aged 11-14.
Thirty-seven of the respondents were interviewed in
their schools and, of these, twenty-two were interviewed on two or three
separate occasions. It is possible that the school setting may have encouraged respondents
to give what they thought were socially desirable answers (de Vaus 1990), thus
reducing the validity of the interview data. In order to minimise this
possibility, how- ever, guarantees of confidentiality were given and the
interviews were conducted privately in rooms where only the interviewer and
respondent were present. The interviews were, with respondents' permission,
tape-recorded and subsequently transcribed. Eighteen of the school-based
respondents had recently participated in a drugs workshop. At the outset of the
study it was thought possible (although unlikely) that involvement in such a
workshop would transform the drug related attitudes and behaviour of
participants. Thus, people who had not attended such a workshop were included
in the sample in order to generate a broader picture of the beliefs and norms
which prevailed amongst young people in the area. There was, however, little
evidence that participation in the workshops resulted in dramatic attitudinal
or motivational changes. In general, participants felt that the workshops had
reinforced, rather than changed, their views, and the attitudes and behaviour
they reported did not differ systematically from those reported by respondents
who had not attended a workshop (Shiner and Newburn 1996).
The school-based interviews were augmented by
ethnographic work con- ducted in three youth clubs in the borough. Given that
youth clubs, arguably, provide a more relaxed setting than schools and one in
which young people feel more able to 'be themselves' this source of information
was particularly useful. The school and youth club-based interviews were
semi-structured. Although the interviewers had a series of questions they
wanted to ask they did not ask them in any fixed order and, where appropriate,
they probed areas as they were raised by respondents. This approach was
favoured on the grounds that it minimised the extent to which respondents had
to express themselves in terms defined by the interviewers and encouraged them
to raise issues which were important to them. It was thus particularly well
suited to the attempt to discover respondents' own meanings and interpretations
(Bryman 1988; Cornwell I984). Although the sample for this study cannot be
viewed as being statistically representative of any population it was
constructed in a way that was consistent with the aim of taking a 'tentative,
hypothesis-generating, exploratory look at patterns' (de Vaus 1990:77).
Before considering the drug-related attitudes of the
young people included in our qualitative study it is worth outlining the extent
of their drug-related experiences. For some, regular contact with drugs and
drug users was part of their everyday lives. The nature of this contact varied
greatly from seeing people use drugs to using them themselves. For some, their
personal drug- related experiences extended beyond the everyday and embraced
the dramatic: three had friends who had been hospitalised because of drug
over-doses and four knew people (personal friends, family friends, local people)
who had died as a result of drug use. More than a quarter (fifteen) of the
fifty-two respondents disclosed that they had taken illegal drugs or solvents
at some time. The drug-using experience of twelve of them was limited to
cannabis which, as well as being the most widely used drug, was also the most
frequently used: levels of consumption ranged from one-off use to 'every other
day'. Polydrug use was disclosed by three respondents and, in addition to
cannabis, involved solvents, amphetamines, LSD, ecstasy and cocaine.
The breadth of the views about drugs expressed by
the young people in the study defied simple generalisation and challenged the
monolithic implication of claims that drug use is becoming 'normalised'.
Furthermore, while some of the respondents who had not used drugs did make
positive connections between drug use and, for example, increased confidence
with, and attractive- ness to, members of the opposite sex, restrictive views,
characteristic of the 'adult world' as described in the normalisation thesis,
were widespread among non-users:
If they haven't got a reason for taking drugs, then
what's the point of taking them because it only affects your life and it ruins
you, so I don't see what's the point in taking the drugs. ..I reckon they
[people who do drugs] are dumb because they know that well for themselves, they
know if they buy it, and it does something to them they know they're going to
be screwed up in their lives.
If they [people] take drugs they're the ones that
are going to suffer at the end, that's all I can say because they shouldn't
have got into that mess in the first place, that's what I think.
That views such as these may be widely held by young
people is suggested by Dowds and Redfern (1994) whose analysis of a nationally
representative sample of over 1,000 12-15 year olds, concluded that high
numbers of young people appear thoroughly convinced of the wrongness of taking
cannabis. Two-thirds of their respondents thought taking cannabis was a very
serious offence. Predictably, however, those who had tried drugs were far less
censorious about taking cannabis than those who had not done so.
Returning to our qualitative study, underlying the
anti-drugs views of the non-users were concerns about the health implications
of drug use, a fear of addiction and losing control, the financial cost and the
potential damage to relationships, particularly with parents, that drug use
could entail. Of particular relevance to the normalisation thesis, however, was
the negative association in the minds of many of the non-users between drug use
and deviant activities such as crime and violence. Such was the strength of
this association that some respondents felt drug use may lead them into crime:
I wouldn't [try cannabis] because I don't want to
get hooked into anything. I never even smoked so I don't want to get into
anything like that, plus once you start hanging around with these gangs and
then, if I try it, I think I probably might get addicted or something and then
have problems later on. Then I have to borrow and steal the money to get the
stuff. I hear about these things so, I mean it's best to keep away.
That drug use was far from being a normalised
activity in some circles was evidenced by the folklore that surrounded it and
by the lengths that some non-users went to in order to isolate themselves from
others whose behaviour they considered inappropriate. Some of what respondents
said about drugs took on the form of 'urban legends' and constitutes a form of
modern (sub- cultural) folklore (Brunvand 1983) .Folklore, according to
Brunvand, is primarily an oral tradition which, made up of stories or legends,
transmits accepted wisdoms, knowledge or modes of behaviour. Whether true of
false these legends reflect some of the 'hopes, fears and anxieties of our
time' (Brunvand 1983: 15). Scare stories which highlighted the potentially
negative aspects of drug use were an important part of non-users' discourse
around drug use. In explaining his non-use one respondent reflected:
It's just because all the stories I've heard about
it, like people getting messed up, people having hallucinations, think they're
planes so they jump off buildings and stuff . . . I heard [that] off a friend.
I don't know whether it's true or not but I know some things have happened like
that where people have had hallucinations and they thought that them things, I
know somebody's jumped in front of a train, thought they were Superman and
stuff . . . My friend said like he heard from someone else, that this guy took
trips [LSD] and he thought he was a hubcap and tried to jump on the side of a
car and got squashed.
Stories such as this abounded in relation to the use
of hallucinogens. The presence of the phrase, 'I don't know whether it's true
or not', calls into question the veracity what it being said on this occasion.
What may appear to be outlandish stories about tripping were, however,
important in confirming and reinforcing norms within non-using circles. In this
context, whether or not the 'bad trip' experiences really happened is of
secondary importance. The story was believed and as such had an impact on
behaviour, for as W. I. Thomas famously observed: 'If men [sic] define
situations as real, they are real in their consequences' (quoted in Cuff et al.
Despite their anti-drug views, non-users rarely
confronted drug-using behaviour by their peers. Most felt that such a response
was inappropriate and likely to be counter-productive. Much more common among
non-users was the attempt to avoid meaningful relationships with drug users.
Although the implied separation between drug users and non-users can be
exaggerated (Shiner and Newburn 1996), we found considerable empirical support
for the idea of peer selection - the idea that young people seek out and develop
friendships with like-minded people (Coggans and McKellar 1994):
There's a couple of rough people around, they just
take trips [LSD] and things like that but I don't really hang around with them
kind of people because they're not worth hanging about with . . . if one of my
friends . . . bring[s] someone new round, I just say 'is he alright or is he a
bit of a div [idiot] doing stupid things'? If they say 'divi', I just say don't
let him come round here, just keep him away'.
[My friend] just says 'if you want to do it then do
it'. But I don't want to do it. He said do I want some before but I said 'no'
and said 'if you ask me again I'm just going to go', like I don't like being
with anybody who does it . . . there's some kids round my way, about 16, 17 that
take it. I just say 'hello' to them, I don't hang around with them or anything.
The process of peer selection was also alluded to by
respondents who had used drugs. This did not, however, necessarily involve
users gravitating towards each other as might be expected (Battjes 1985;
Oetting and Beauvais 1987). Users' accounts were peppered with references to
the rule-governed nature of drug use and indicated that, in the social milieu
in which they operated, such behaviour was far from being a sanction-free
activity. There were, for example, clear rules concerning why, where, what and
how much it was considered legitimate to use, and those who broke these rules
risked facing sanctions from, and even possible social exclusion by, other
Q: So what do you think is alright, how often do you
think it's OK to do dope [cannabis] say?
No more than every couple of weeks I suppose, like
every two weeks, like only a tenners (i.e. ten pound's] worth.
Q: What would you think if someone did it a couple
of times a week?
I wouldn't say they were addicted, I wouldn't say
they were doing it too much, but I mean you can't tell someone what to do and
what not to do, it's the way it is these days. If you tell someone what to do
and they're unable to deal with it and so you think well, I'll have to leave
you to it and if he gets too out of it, then you have to stop hanging about
with them, leave it to him to sort it out himself. ..If one of my mates was
doing drugs really bad, every night or coke [cocaine], you'd say to them 'sort
it out because you're messing yourself up', like if you were out with your mate
and you were pulling a girl, you were out with them and sometimes you see a
nice couple of girls and you're really after them and your mates are out of it,
he's just going to be laughing, and she's going 'what's wrong with him, he's a
div [idiot]' and then she's going to think oh he's a div as well and they're
just going to leave it and then you think, what I am hanging around with him
for? Probably just bust up with your friend.
In seeking to understand the views of respondents
who had used drugs, the work of Matza ( 1964) and Sykes and Matza ( 1957) is
important. Of particular relevance is their rejection of the view that
delinquents belong to some form of subcultural 'otherness'. Reflecting the
claim that 'norms may be violated without surrendering allegiance to them'
(Matza 1964:60), they argued that 'delinquents' commonly support the same set
of norms and values as everybody else and that they differ, primarily, in their
use of techniques of neutralisation which temporarily render relevant social
controls inoperative and allow them to engage in delinquent activities without
feeling guilty or shameful. As Sykes and Matza (1957: 668) put it 'In this
sense, the delinquent both has his cake and eats it too, for he remains
committed to the dominant normative system and yet so qualifies its imperatives
that violations are "acceptable" if not "right" '.
Although the respondents in our study who had used
drugs tended to emphasise the 'safeness' of cannabis, this apparent liberalism
was very limited. As was the case with the non-users, the views expressed by
respondents who had used drugs - including multiple, repeat and one-off users -
shared much with the restrictive views characteristic of the 'adult world':
They [people who don't take drugs] are sensible
aren't they, not doing it, if you're going round the streets taking drugs now,
Q: So what's sensible about not doing it?
Keep healthy, you can think better, you can sit
there and you can think, puff a draw [cannabis] and you might forget things,
put a pen down there and completely forget about it. ..Like I don't want to
destroy myself, ruining your lungs, damaging your brain cells, so it ain't
worth it, it ain't worth damaging yourself just to have a laugh. You can easily
have a laugh can't you, with your mates.
Further, they shared many of the concerns about drug
use expressed by non- users, including a fear of addiction and of the damage
that drug use could do to their relationships, particularly with their parents.
In terms of their drug- related attitudes, the principal difference between
respondents who had used drugs and those who had not done so was the
development, by the former, of techniques of neutralisation which allowed them
to use drugs without feeling guilty about it. Some of them, for example,
explained their use in terms of peer pressure:
Nearly everyone does it [takes drugs]. You only get
a handful that don't and there's more people doing it than there ain't so you
sit there in a group of you and they go on, 'do it, do it', and you see them
all happy and you feel right awkward and that, so then you just do it and then
once you do it you keep doing it and you can't stop. [It makes you] ...feel a bit
awkward because like you want to say 'no' but you know you've got to [keep
doing it] ...[you couldn't say 'no'] ...because if you did, they just go on and
on and they just go 'oh what's the matter, you're a chicken, you're a chicken'
and make you feel like, well, like a right div in front of loads of people and
it makes you feel small.
This is a classic neutralisation technique for, as
Coggans and McKellar have noted, 'the assumption that drug use is caused by
peer pressure places the blame on others and away from the drug user' ( 1994:
18) .Other neutralisation techniques used by respondents included claims that
the drugs they used were not harmful and were not really drugs and that they
did not use enough to get addicted:
I won't take no hard drugs. . . because the side
effects and all that, it takes quicker if you take the hard drugs, but it takes
longer if you take the soft drugs. . . I won't take hard drugs.
Like ash and weed [cannabis], what I normally smoke
and that, can't really harm you and that. ..like I'm not addicted to like speed
[amphetamine] or that, so I could give it up any time. The way I do it, I don't
get addicted. Weed, I don't use it all that often, I don't get addicted to it.
Sometimes like I smoke it like seven days in one week but then leave it for a
couple of months. . .
At the basis of these neutralisation techniques was
the claim that there were no really serious consequences from the drug(s) being
used, and, by implication, that the user was making responsible and rational choices:
I don't mind people who take speed or like a joint
[cannabis] now and again or something like that but I don't like the sort of
people who take like coke and that. ..because it's a bag drug and that and it
could kill you. ..[people who take cocaine] are putting their lives at risk and
that going on coke, but people who smoke ash [cannabis] or take speed and that,
they're not really putting their lives at risk because it takes a lot of speed
to kill them. . .
Q: Say you went round to your sister's tonight and
say your sister offered you coke, what would you do?
I would tell her to fuck off ...the reason I'm so
against that sort of drug and that, because my cousin, he was on it and that
and he used to steal like off my Auntie and that, like money and her TV and
that to get his drugs.
The alignment by respondents who had used drugs with
consensus values relating to drug use was strongly evident in their restrictive
and censorious reactions to drug use, real or anticipated, by their siblings:
I'd probably go mad. I'd probably tell him, 'Don't
do it because it's not good', I'd say 'I've done it myself and it's not the
best thing to do', he probably won't thank me for it but you have to tell him,
probably say to me 'ah you do it so why can't I' and stuff like that, but you
have to tell him, it's always an instinct with your brother.
Negative reactions were not reserved simply for
Q: Say you found out that the 18 year old brother
[brother] was going drugs, maybe he is, what would you do?
It wouldn't bother me if I found out about John (4)
like I know he puffs a draw [cannabis] and I know he don't touch anything else,
but if he did like, once he told me he tried a bit of coova [cocaine] and I
didn't talk to him for ages because the way I look at it, it's disgusting.
Young people's reactions to drug use, it seems, are,
in part, a function of their relationship to the user and the roles that are
available to them within the context of that relationship. In explaining why
they would challenge drug use by their siblings but not their friends,
respondents made a clear distinction. Relationships with brothers and sisters
were felt to be of a higher order than those with friends and, in the case of
younger siblings, respondents felt they had a certain authority and
responsibility which they lacked in relation to their friends.
While recognising the increase in youthful drug use
during recent years, we have argued that the normalisation thesis exaggerates
its extent and, more importantly, oversimplifies the ways in which drug use is
perceived by young people. While it is not unusual for individuals to have
experienced drug use by their mid to late teens, this trend should not be
treated uncritically. In part, the exaggeration is a consequence of the
measures used. Lifetime measures, for example, do not reflect the dynamic
nature of drug use and indicators based on use during the last year and/or
month show that regular drug use (however this may be defined) remains a
minority activity. Picking up on our earlier work, the authors of the drugs
report from the 1994 British Crime Survey concluded that, while 'drug-taking
may seem quite widespread if one merely focuses on the ever/lifetime
dimension', it is 'still apparently the case that the majority of young people
have not taken prohibited drugs; and more importantly, that most drug users
-even a clear majority of young ones -are merely occasional, not showing up on
a last month basis' (Ramsay and Percy 1996:53-4).
Furthermore, the claim that drug-taking by young
people has become normalised simplifies the choices that young people make
about drug use. It does so primarily by using the term 'drugs' in an
undifferentiated manner. We have suggested that the global term 'drugs' has
only a limited meaning for young people. Trends in young people's use of
specific substances give the lie to the idea that 'illegal substances' somehow
have some generic property in the eyes of young people. Cannabis is, by some
way, the most widely and frequently used drug by young people and, although use
of dance/rave drugs has increased significantly in recent years, it still
appears to be limited to a relatively small minority of young people.
Reflecting their status as 'hard drugs', cocaine and heroin are very rarely
used. Moreover, the attitudes dis- played by young people towards these
different drugs are not easily classifiable and are certainly not uniform.
Finally, we have suggested that the normalisation
thesis pays inadequate attention to the normative context of behaviour. We have
argued that, in general, young people do not view drug use as an
'unproblematic' activity. The young people who participated in our qualitative
study and who had not used drugs commonly subscribed to a restrictive set of
views, characteristic of the so-called 'adult world'. This was clear in the
associations they made between drug use, crime and other forms of deviant
behaviour. Surprisingly perhaps, the attitudes of those respondents who had
used drugs were, in many respects, similar to those expressed by non-users.
Users' accounts of drug use highlighted the rule-governed nature of such
activities. Their affiliation with consensus values was also evident in their
reactions to their siblings' drug use, whether this usage was real or
hypothesised. The principal difference, we have argued, between users and
non-users lies in the generation, by the former, of neutralisation techniques
which allow them to engage in drug use while at the same time ascribing to
Clearly, rising rates of drug use among young people
must be taken seriously. The work done by all those agencies within and outside
the criminal justice system in tackling drug use is not helped, however, by
scaremongering about the seemingly inexorable disappearance from the social
landscape of the drug-free teenager. As Plant wrote somewhat over a decade ago
“Hardly a day now passes without either a radio or
television documentary or the front page of a tabloid newspaper being devoted
to the subject of drugs. This attention is reinforced by a veritable barrage of
gloomy forecasts and sharply rising levels of recorded drug-related crimes.
Some of this interest has been factual and considered. But sadly much of it has
been couched in highly emotive terms.”
It would be a shame if the academic community
continues to ignore such warnings and inadvertently adds fuel to the fire.
The authors are grateful to Charlie Lloyd and
Malcolm Ramsay for comments on an initial draft of this article.
1. What the authors meant by 'regular' use is not
2. Throughout this article the term 'lifetime use'
has been used instead of 'ever use'. The figures relating to lifetime use
indicate the percentage of respondents who reported having used an illicit drug
(in this instance cocaine) at any point in their lives.
3. Data concerning the use of specific substances
during the month and year before the surveys were not presented by Parker et
4. In the interests of confidentiality the names of
people mentioned by respondents have been changed.
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Biographical note: MICHAEL SHINER is a Research
Fellow at the Policy Studies Institute, London. Dr TIM NEWBURN is a Senior
Fellow and Head of the Crime, Justice and Youth Studies Group at the Policy
Studies Institute; e-mail, M.Shiner@psi.org.uk, and T.Newburn@psi.org.uk,
Address; Policy Studies Institute, 100 Park Village
East, London NWl 3SR.