High Incidence Of Drug Use.


Drug use by young people has been treated as a criminal justice issue to a great extent because it is linked to other issues that are involved in the criminal justice system. Since the mid 19th century, several laws have been passed in the UK, which sought to regulate drug use. For instance, the Pharmacy Act 1868, and the Poisons and Pharmacy Act 1908, are two of the early laws that were enacted for regulation of drug sales (Reuter & Stevens, 2007, p. 16). These laws were enacted on the basis of general safety and public health; but despite passing these laws, there was no prohibition on the sale of intoxicants like opium, which only came to be regulated in the 20th century (Berridge, 1978). This is so because addiction in itself was not considered to be a major social problem in British policy till about the early 20th century (Brownstein, 1993). The ‘cocaine epidemic’ of 1916 led to the change in public perception of drugs and intoxicants (Berridge, 1988). The illegal drug trafficking and international responses to the same, such as, Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs 1961, also led to more changes in British responses to drugs, with the passage of laws such as the Dangerous Drugs Act and the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and the Controlled Drugs (Penalties) Act 1981.

In the UK, the model is more prohibition focused with a number of laws in place that seek to prohibit the manufacture, sale or use of certain kinds of drugs, and regulation of certain others (Taylor, Buchanan, & Ayres, 2016). On the other hand, a move to legalise certain drug use, such as, cannabis, instead of decriminalisation of drug users is also criticised as not being informed by sufficient empirical research that can show the impact of legalisation on drug uptake by young children (Dirisu, Shickle, & Elsey, 2016). This essay discusses whether drug use by young people is a criminal justice issue and argues that it is more a public health issue than a criminal justice issue. Making it a criminal justice issue only introduces the young users to the criminal justice system. Decriminalisation of drug use would consequently improve on the current prohibition policy.


Drug use among young people has been linked to increase in anti-social behaviour, which is one of the reasons why it is argued that it an issue for the criminal justice system (Blackman & Wilson, 2014). Research indicates that there is a link between drugs abuse by young people and a tendency to indulge in risk taking behaviours by young people, which may foster the argument that there is a need to pay more attention to drug abuse from a criminal justice perspective (Jawad, McIver, & Iqbal, 2014). Consequently, there has been greater attention by policy makers to drug use by young people and its link to crime, which has meant that there is a greater push towards controlling and punishing drug use (Reuter & Stevens, 2007, p. 33). At the same time, there is an increase in illicit drug use by young people (Reuter & Stevens, 2007). A study reveals more than one-third of those who were born after 1970, would have experimented with some illicit drugs at least once and more than 50% of those who are born after 1980 would have experimented with drugs at some point (Reuter & Stevens, 2007). This points at a high incidence of drug use in young people, which is also linked to anti-social tendencies.

The nature of drugs that are available in the illicit market and are being bought by young persons are such that need attention from the public health system and not just the criminal justice system. For instance, young people are buying Crack, which is a relatively new drug. As of 2007, there were estimates that indicated that there were more than 193,000 recent users of Crack in England and Wales (Reuter & Stevens, 2007, p. 29). This number is almost equal to the number of recent heroin users in England and Wales (Reuter & Stevens, 2007, p. 29). Both Crack and heroin are drugs that are sold in the illicit markets. England already has the highest rate of drug use in Europe for cocaine (Reuter & Stevens, 2007). Criminal justice system approach to drug use in young people is relevant only to some extent, and in some situations, where linkages between drug use and anti-social activities is clearly made out. Other than that, drug use in young people is a social issue that needs social responses, particularly the response from public health perspective.

There is an increase in the use of recreational and psychoactive drugs among the young people in the UK, and it is a matter of concern that younger people are experimenting with different kinds of drugs, such as, mephedrone, Salvia divinorum, “Spice drugs”, methylone, naphyrone and benzylpiperazine (Corazza, Simonato, Corkery, Trincas, & Schifano, 2014). These drugs are not only prevalent among young professionals, but also in school students (Corazza, Simonato, Corkery, Trincas, & Schifano, 2014). It is also a matter of concern that many students who have experimented with drugs are not aware of the nature of the compounds in the drugs consumed by them and the fact that these compounds do not make for legal consumption (Corazza, Simonato, Corkery, Trincas, & Schifano, 2014). Some of the compounds are synthetic drugs, which present complex health risks to the users. Mephedrone, which is one of the most popular of these compounds, is a synthetic cathinone, and is widely used as a party drug amongst the younger generations as well as being reported as being used by school students (Dargan, Albert, & Wood, 2010). It is Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), which makes the use of the drugs an illegal act, with sometimes serious health consequences for those who are using these drugs (Dargan, Albert, & Wood, 2010). There are other such drugs, which are being used by school and college students, such as, ketamine, amyl nitrate, magic mushrooms and even LSD (McCambridge, Winstock, Hunt, & Mitcheson, 2007). LSD is hallucinogen and its usage presents risks to users, especially in the event of overdose, and it is a ‘Class A’ scheduled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Other popular drugs include ecstasy and magic mushroom (McCambridge, Winstock, Hunt, & Mitcheson, 2007). Magic mushrooms have effects that impact changes in mood, behaviour, perception and somatosensory reflexes (McCambridge, Winstock, Hunt, & Mitcheson, 2007). These psychoactive substances are popular amongst the young people and these have synthetic derivatives of more popular drugs (Corazza, Simonato, Corkery, Trincas, & Schifano, 2014).

Therefore, drug use is more a social and public health issue, than a criminal justice issue. When it is a criminal justice issue, the focus is more on punishing offenders, including those who are found using drugs. However, with respect to young drug users, this may be counter-productive. There are some drawbacks of treating drug use as a criminal justice issue, which in the case of young users also includes introduction of young people to the criminal justice system. Some drug users in the UK are as young as 12 or 13 years of age. Research has revealed that more than 1/3rd of 13 year old children in the UK believe that cannabis can be easily procured and will be affordable for them to buy and some of these children will even try to procure or use cannabis (Ogilvie, Gruer, & Haw, 2005). Research has indicated that the drug mephedrone, has been purchased online by some users who are between 13 to 15 years of age (Dargan, Albert, & Wood, 2010).

If a criminal justice system approach is taken to dealing with such young drug users, then children as young as 13 years old will come into contact with the criminal justice system for something that should be dealt with from the perspective of public health and not criminal justice. Undoubtedly, the issue of drug use among young persons is a serious issue because of the repercussions of drug use can include death due to overdose, negative impact on health, and even association with criminal activity (Reuter & Stevens, 2007, p. 33). Drug use can even lead to more car crashes and fatal accidents by those who are intoxicated (Reuter & Stevens, 2007). Until now, the UK has responded to this by regulation and control of drug use. However, this approach is flawed for reasons that may also be noted here.

First, there is a tendency in both literature and policy that the perspectives of the drug users are ignored, with both literature and policy taking an uninformed approach to drug users (Lancaster, Sutherland, & Ritter, 2014). There is a tendency to approach drug use from a unidimensional perspective, which paints all drug users as depraved, criminal, child-like, poor and desperate individuals who need to be rescued or controlled or punished by the law (Singer & Page, 2014). The social perceptions towards drug users informs this unidimensional approach to drug users and this approach is mirrored in the legislation and policy that takes a criminal justice approach to drug users (Hellman, 2012). On the other hand, decriminalisation of drug use and even legalisation of certain drugs and intoxicants have found support in the literature.

For instance, a research study has found that support for legalisation of cannabis is justified because such a move would have economic benefits, lead to reduction in violent crime associated with the drug trade, reduce the cost of the criminal justice system, and increased safety for the users (Osborne & Fogel, 2017, p. 12). Decriminalisation has also been supported in literature because drug prohibition in criminal law has been found to have led to harmful practices targeting people growing certain crops like cannabis (Csete, et al., 2016). Drug prohibition decreases safety of users, because prohibition leads to the creation of parallel economies run by criminal networks and criminal organisations, and young drug users are exposed to danger when they deal with such criminal organisations (Csete, et al., 2016). At the same time, drug use being more a part of criminal justice system means that there is less focus on the public health aspects of this problem, which leads to a situation where state authorities fail to reach out to users who may need basic health services (Csete, et al., 2016). Research also shows that there is a tendency of police to boost their arrest record by unethical means and also target users by harassing and detaining them (Csete, et al., 2016). For young users, criminalising means being introduced to the criminal justice system at a young age, where such persons may be harmed or be further criminalised (Csete, et al., 2016). However, the government in UK has refused to consider decriminalising drugs (Taylor, Buchanan, & Ayres, 2016). This may not be the appropriate approach, because research shows that decriminalising of drugs allows users to be treated as patients and not as criminals (Chand, 2007). Moreover, decriminalising will also keep young persons from being introduced to the criminal justice system at a young age, when they are susceptible to harm which comes from exposure to other criminals.

To conclude, drug use should not be treated as a criminal justice system issue, but as a public health issue. Treating young users as criminals exposes them to further criminalisation and harm. Instead, by treating this as public health issue, state can provide the much needed help to such users.

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