Sociology, vol. 31, no. 3, 511-529 1997






Abstract 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.


The normalisation thesis


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 relevant audience(s).


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' (1994:42).


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. 1992:152).


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 users:


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, it's stupid.

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. 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 younger siblings:


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 consensus values.


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 {1985:350):

“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 clearly defined.

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 al. (1995).

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,, and, respectively.

Address; Policy Studies Institute, 100 Park Village East, London NWl 3SR.