Judging from official propaganda, illegal drug users are lazy, alienated, amoral, fatalistic losers who seek chemically induced oblivion. A recent study of young drug users in Britain paints a different picture.
Researchers at Demos, a London think tank, analyzed a survey of 854 15-to-24-year-olds and interviewed about 100 subjects in their teens and 20s. They found little evidence to support popular stereotypes. "Most young people who use drugs," they write, "are as sociable, sensible, and morally aware as non-users and are thoughtful and discriminating in their ideas about the use of drugs."
Contrary to the premise of DARE and other drug education programs, the subjects rarely cited peer pressure as a reason for using drugs. Rather than taking drugs as a form of escape, they typically used them to enhance social activities such as dancing or listening to music with friends. Recreational users condemned "out of control" behavior and frequently expressed concerns about health risks.
In the survey, 15-to-24-year-olds who had tried an illegal drug were no less likely to be rated as highly sociable or as strongly puritanical than those who had not. They were somewhat less introverted, somewhat more individualistic, and considerably less likely to "place a high value on authority." The interviews indicated this was especially true of the police.
Drug users and nonusers in the survey had similar ratings for "self-esteem" and "resignation," but users were somewhat more likely to have a "relaxed attitude toward life." In the interviews, about 75 percent of recreational users said they were optimistic about their employment prospects, compared to about 92 percent of nonusers and less than half of problem users.
"Just as only a small minority of the people who drink alcohol ever become alcoholics," the authors write, "only a small minority of recreational drug users become problem users." They criticize warnings that ignore this reality by focusing on the risk of addiction. They argue that attempts to reduce the harm associated with drug use should discriminate between different kinds of users and try to harness the traits and social forces that favor moderation and responsibility.
The report, The Substance of Youth: The Role of Drugs in Young People's Lives Today, is available from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.