Most drug users begin taking drugs at an early age, as adolescents or even younger. Taking drugs while the body is still forming interrupts the normal maturing process and compounds the dangers posed to the user as an adult. When children cannot multiply or divide at age 11, they can be taught at age 12. But when a child's mind is destroyed by drugs, that child may not be able to start again. The time lost and the damage done may be irreversible.
Such young users are less aware than adults to the risks of substance abuse and are more likely to have more serious problems with it later in life. Students who use marijuana regularly are statistically twice as likely to receive below-average marks or failing grades; school drop-outs are twice as likely to be frequent drug users.
Drugs can also disrupt an entire school. When many students in a class are under the influence of drugs, or absent because of drug abuse, the progress of all students is impeded. Also, the pressure is increased on those young people who resist drugs. In addition, drug use brings into the school environment the illegal activities connect to drug use: theft, prostitution and the selling of drugs to others.
Alcoholic toxicomania may develop out of the combination of a certain personality, the environment, and the influence of the drug. The personality of the minor who is in the developmental stage is qualitatively different from that of an adult person. The environment in which the minor lives is usually also different from that of the adult. Adolescence is a time when many problems occur (social, family and economic) as young people seek to become established and achieve independence from their parents. Such problems are likely to be even greater among non-students than among students, since these youngsters often move away from home and have the support neither of their parents nor of schools and teachers. Feelings of alienation, low self-worth and resentment are higher among the illiterate and unemployed than among those who have been successful at school. Young people therefore, in particular the disadvantaged, are susceptible to a variety of social and psychological problems which make them open to the possibility of drug abuse as a means of relief. Factors associated with high risk for drug abuse are: unemployment; living away from home; migration to cities; relaxed parental controls; broken homes and one-parent families; alienation from families; early exposure to drugs; leaving school early; poor use of drugs; family use of drugs. Risky environments include: high urbanization; high rates of crime or vice; areas where drugs are sold, traded or produced; areas where there are drug-using gangs; occupations connected with, for example, tourism, drug production, drug sale; and areas where delinquency is common.
Measures involving the message "don't take drugs" have proved ineffective and unrealistic, particularly in societies where there is virtually unrestricted usage of alcohol and tobacco; emphasis is now being placed on the individual's capacity to manage his use of drugs and make reasonable choices based on factual knowledge about the effects produced by them. Changing attitudes seem to have produced an apparent increased tolerance of drug abuse despite knowledge of the unfortunate, often disastrous, effects this may have. The political will to provide treatment and advice and the money to back such measures is less urgent than in the past, and there are no signs that the drug-abuse explosion is being controlled.
In 1989, it was estimated that at least 11 million young people worldwide were victims of the abuse of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, and that more than 3 million were engaged in different aspects of the illicit drug business.
Drug abuse by students is increasing. In the USA, it was reported in 2001 that 52 percent of eighth graders (leaving primary school) have consumed alcohol, 41 percent have smoked cigarettes and 20 percent have used marijuana. More than one in five had used inhalants (aerosols, glues, solvents) at least once in their lives. By graduation year (1977 data) 82 percent reported having consumed alcohol, nearly 50 percent had used marijuana at least once (up from 33 percent in 1992) and 54.3 percent had used illicit drugs.
There has been a shift in the type of drugs young people use. In the USA for example, cocaine is the fastest growing drug among high school students. The number of senior students using it doubled over the twenty years since 1976, according to university statistics, while marijuana use has dropped and alcohol use has remained steady. The penetration of cocaine into private boarding schools and affluent suburban public high schools is, in part, because these students can afford it. They also come out of a social milieu where more and more parents are abusing drugs. Cocaine is said to be on 99% of the campuses.
In the UK a survey in 1992 indicated that 50% of young people had experimented with drugs, 71% had been offered drugs in the previous year, 30% were regular users, 41 smoked cannabis, and 25% had taken LSD. Drug use was acknowledged to be endemic. In 1994, 60% of the 14-15 year-olds surveyed said that drugs were readily available within their usual environments. Cannabis, LSD, amphetamines, solvents, poppers and ecstasy were all obtainable. 33% had tried cannabis, and 13% had tried LSD, and drug use was similar for boys and girls.
Adolescents are denied the pleasures that adults come to take for granted. They are either given or expected to earn, very small sums of pocket money, and exist under authoritarian pressures at school, at work, at home, and in the community. Sensual pleasures in particular are denied them, specifically sexual and gustatory, the latter implying free, wide-ranging choice of food and drink, and use of tobacco. They have restricted access to the pain-killers or analgesics and stress-relieving tranquillizers that adults may take routinely. They are obliged to sleep under supervised conditions as to places, times and accompaniment, and may also be obliged to attend all family social functions, do chores at home, and attend worship services. The adolescent is thus deprived of freedom of choice when the maturation of his or her personality is demanding a degree of latitude and independence. Secretiveness is the result; secret sexuality and secret 'foods' which include all substances taken into the body, the ones giving pleasant sensations being preferred. Hence the teenage vulnerability to drugs, pushed at them by organized crime, leads hundreds of thousands of youth into addiction.
According to some surveys, 50% of young people report having tried illegal drugs at least once. The key phrase here is "once"; many of these young people do not use these drugs a second time, or use them intermittently. We should not lump them together with regular drug users. And we should not forget that even this figure shows that 50% of young people have never even tried drugs.