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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Illegal Leisure: The Normalisation of Adolescent Drug Use

Parker, Howard; Aldridge, Judith; and Measham, Fiona (1998).
London: Routledge

ISBN:0-415-15810-9 paperback
0-415-15809-5 hardcover

Description: hardcover, x + 177 pages.

Contents: List of illustrations, acknowledgements, introduction, 7 chapters, bibliography, index.

Note: The changes in society's attitudes toward drugs, adolescence, and normalisation as described by the authors may delineate broad scale cultural shifts which may also permit the responsible, legal use of entheogens.

Excerpt(s): Chapter 2 is an unusual methods chapter because it must describe five years' enquiry whereby the young subjects of this study were tracked from when they were 14 years old in 1991 through until their entry into young adulthood. Using annual self-completion questionnaires and some interviews when the respondents were around 17 years old, the way this generation have 'consumed' leisure was faithfully documented. Such an ambitious investigation created many dilemmas and contingencies not normally faced by social researchers whilst also producing exciting analytic possibilities. (page 2)

In total, we tracked 1,125 unique individuals for one or more years, coded and processed 3,116 questionnaire returns, and now have available over 2,900 questionnaire variables and 'computed' variables. (page 35)

The essential problem with current government policy on drugs in the UK is that it cannot deal with complexity. It cannot distinguish between types of drugs, types of drug users, diverse reasons for taking drugs and the fact that the drugs-crime and drugs-danger relationships are both real and illusory depending on these other factors. Cannabis may as well be heroin, a weekend amphetamine user a crazed addict, a young woman who gives a friend an ecstasy tablet a drugs baron.

The construction of public policy on such insecure foundations as a media-defined matrix has been totally inappropriate. Youth and the nature of adolescence is deliberately and purposefully misdefined. Throughout the 1990s government has ignored research evidence, civil service and judicial wisdom and, in refusing to recognise that dealing with complexity is a skill required to govern, has failed to understand youth. The Conservative administration of the 1990s took no heed of evidence produced by its own administrators, for instance that transitory 'delinquency' in adolescence can and must be managed differently from persistent long-term offending. It was no more sophisticated in presenting the country with a drugs strategy. Tackling Drugs Together was knee-deep in simplistic rhetoric which actually instructed resource-starved, local inter-agency partnerships to function on misconceptions. It is some consolation that many local actors recognised this and devised more realistic strategies through local Drugs Action Teams.

The political discourse has an energy of its own. It promotes public fear and anxiety about crime, drugs and youth which in turn it then uses to interfere simplistically, and with apparent public consent, in drugs and criminal justice policy and practice. This process, because it can barely be challenged, thus spins along reinforcing itself. The UK has distinguished itself from other European administrations, for example in Germany, by politicising drugs, crime and the state of youth. So politically and electorally important is the simplistic rhetoric that a coherent, complex approach to dealing with drug use in a national way becomes impossible to contemplate, let alone publicly announce. We will return to drugs policy in the final chapter. (pages 10-11)

Explaining adolescent drug use

... However few studies have moved beyond the what is happening question to the why. Why is everything changing so rapidly and dramatically? Why is this 1990s generation of adolescents using drugs in an unprecedented way? Why have all official attempts to prevent this failed? Why do young people and their elders find drug use such a difficult topic to discuss together? (page 16)

Firstly the more recent theoretical approaches to adolescence as part of the lifespan literature seem more able to cope with change because they have become far more dynamic and have broadened their perspectives by becoming multi-disciplinary, increasingly acknowledging the inter-relationship between the individual adolescent and his or her social world. This approach insists that most (but not all) young people successfully negotiate adolescence, taking 'storm and stress' in their stride. It is able to accommodate substantive changes in behavioural patterns - such as earlier sexual behavior or later marrying - without having to pathologise or redraw the boundaries between normal and abnormal development. We can speculate that this recent life-course transitions perspective will in time explore 'recreational' drug use without schism. It implicitly reminds us that it is not the essential nature of adolescence which is changing but the nature of the terrain and journeys which youth must make and consequently the type of strategies and skills they utilise.

These conclusions are not inconsistent with a second pertinent literature created by a group of empirical sociologists who have been purposefully looking at contemporary transitions from adolescence to adulthood across Europe. In turn it is no coincidence that these social scientists have been deeply influenced by the post-modernity literature. They set us a good example by taking up theoretical ideas and then operationalising them through empirical research. Their conclusions are unequivocal. Being 1990s adolescents involves young people in a more difficult, more demanding and far longer journey in which coping with uncertainty about the future and the pay-offs of everyday decisions all conspire to make this a vanguard generation who must grow up in a risk society. They take risks not as an expression of rebelliousness but as a tactic to achieving conventional goals. Clearly, taking calculated risks is very different from being 'at risk'. (page 30)

The normalisation of recreational drug use

Although using the term 'recreational' is not without its difficulties, we must begin by emphasising that the normalisation thesis we have developed refers only to the use of certain drugs, primarily cannabis but also nitrites, amphetamines and equivocally LSD and ecstasy. Heroin and cocaine are not included in the thesis. Similarly chaotic combination drug use and dependent 'daily' drug use form no part of our conceptualisation. This is because abstainers, cautious drug users and indeed many of our regular young drug users do not accept or accommodate such approaches to drug taking any more than social drinkers regard violent drunken outbursts or drinking to unconsciousness as an acceptable way to use alcohol. The minority of young people who use 'hard' drugs the hard way are not regarded as recreational drug users by most of their peers.

The concept of normalisation has been used in many contexts but essentially it is concerned with how a 'deviant', often subcultural, population or their deviant behavior is able to be accommodated into a larger grouping or society. For example, the partial assimilation of people with learning difficulties, previously segregated and 'warehoused', into mainstream communities has often been explained as a process of normalisation.

Normalisation in the context of recreational drug use cannot be reduced to the intuitive phrase 'it's normal for young people to take drugs'; that is both to oversimplify and overstate the case. We are concerned only with the spread of deviant activity and associated attitudes from the margins towards the center of youth culture where it joins many other accommodated 'deviant' activities such as excessive drinking, casual sexual encounters and daily cigarette smoking. Although tobacco use is clearly normalised and most young people have tried a cigarette only a minority are regular smokers and even then their behaviour is only acceptable to their peers in certain settings. So normalisation need not be concerned with absolutes; we are not even considering the possibility that most young Britons will become illicit drug users. It is quite extraordinary enough that we have so quickly reached a situation where the majority will have tried an illicit drug by the end of their teens and that in many parts of the UK up to a quarter may be regular recreational drug users.

The key features of our normalisation thesis are as follows:

Drugs availability

We noted in Chapter 4 the incremental rise in drug offer situations throughout adolescence, so that by the age of 15 a majority of our respondents had been in situations where drugs were available to try or buy and by 18 almost all had been in such situations. ...

Drug trying

... At the beginning of the decade we were finding that one or two in ten young people, by the age of 18, had ever tried a drug. Prevalence has climbed with each adolescent cohort so that from five to six in ten young Britons are now disclosing drug trying by this age. The trend has been quite clear.

The normative nature of drug trying has been further demonstrated by the closure of gender and social class differences. ...

Drug use

We have shown how adolescent decision making journeys have led around a quarter of our samples down the regular drug user pathways. Whilst drugs decisions will continue to be dynamic this is a remarkable proportion and a robust measure of normalisation. We have shown in both the pathways and journeys analyses that young people, by and large, make recognisable cost-benefit assessments and the fact that so many broadly settle primarily for cannabis rather than poly drug use is a clear illustration of this. ...

Being drugwise

Although the notion of drugwise youth emerged from our surveys, particularly in the later years, the strongest sense that nearly all young people are drugwise comes from our interview data where abstainers demonstrated their considerable knowledge of the recreational drugs scene simply because they could not escape encounters with drugs and drug users. ...

Future intentions

... We can see that prospective drug use or future intentions to try or reuse particular drugs remain powerful. This open-mindedness about future drug use, often by young adults who went through their adolescence without taking illicit drugs, is a further dimension in our particular thesis of normalisation.

Cultural accommodation of the illicit

We have spent considerable time highlighting the fact that developmental 'personality' theories which insist drug use is a sign of abnormality are inappropriate explanatory vehicles. Within sociology and much criminology the other theory most commonly associated with explanations of drug use is subcultural theory. Again, however, because the drug trying we are attempting to explain has moved from being a small minority to majority activity subcultural theory struggles. Indeed normalisation, because it is about the accommodations of previously 'deviant' activities into mainstream cultural arrangements, sits uncomfortably with subcultural explorations (unless we regard it primarily as a process). ...

The drug use we have been describing in this study is quite different. It is largely recreational and is centered on less physically addictive drugs. It can be accommodated because most adolescents and young adult users merely fit their leisure into busy lives and then in turn fit their drug use into their leisure and 'time out' to compete alongside sport, holidays, romance, shopping, nights out, drinking and, most important of all, having a laugh with friends. Moreover as we have seen, such use now belongs as much with females as males and to young people from all social backgrounds. ...

These then are the six dimensions of our normalisation thesis. (pages 152-156)

This does not make drug taking safe or the drug user right. We have documented enough ill-conceived, drug using adventures and self-admissions of poor, often intoxicated, judgements to undermine such a conclusion. On the other hand rational decisions about consumption do lie at the heart of the normalisation thesis as they do with the McDonaldisation of modern societies. Our drug users are essentially extending the same decision-making processes to illicit drugs as others do in respect of cigarette smoking or drinking alcohol or indeed horse riding, hang gliding or mountaineering. It's your decision, you take the risks, you weigh the enjoyment and functional advantages to your life of your social habits against the potential dangers and pitfalls. (pages 158-159)

Waiting for the truce

We are, unfortunately, some way away from the political moment when the dysfunctions of the 'war on drugs' strategy can be addressed. The important public policy issues - about how we deal with otherwise law abiding young citizens caught with drugs in their possession, and about how we ensure the health and safety of young people who use drugs - remain unresolved. This is because the complexities of drug use in the 1990s are obscured by ideological and political dogma and most of all by a lack of empathy for young people trying to grow up in modern times. We must wait for a truce before we can face up to the truth. (page 165)

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