By Betsy Thom
Professor of Health Policy, Co-Director Drug and Alcohol Research Centre
What happens to young people who use alcohol and drugs and get into trouble with the law?
Can prevention and intervention change the course of events, stop drug use escalating and reduce the harms associated with substance use? These questions are at the heart of the current EPPIC research project (Exchanging Prevention practices on Polydrug use among youth In Criminal justice systems). The project is funded by the EU and has partners in the UK (Middlesex and CGL), Italy, Denmark, Poland, Austria and Germany. Betsy Thom and Karen Duke of the Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (DARC) here at Middlesex, coordinate the project. It has been running for just over a year and, so far, we have interviewed a range of practitioners delivering interventions to young people aged 15-24.
What do we know about these young people from practitioners working in England?
Generally, practitioners described the young people as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk’; they use mainly cannabis and alcohol but many also suffer multiple social and mental health problems; they are ‘complex cases’; they use to cope and they live in environments where substance use is ‘normalised’. Some young people get caught up in drug supply chains –‘county lines’– where they report earning good money, gaining ‘respect’ and the opportunity to achieve in an alternative community.
So, how big is this problem?
The number of offences committed by young people reduced by 74% since March 2006 and numbers of young people sentenced to custody have also fallen steadily over the past decade. But young people in touch with the criminal justice system, particularly those sentenced to custody are more likely to display an entrenched pattern of offending behaviour, to have committed serious offences and have a higher concentration of problems. Reoffending rates remain high. Over two thirds reoffend within 12 months of release from secure institutions. Reported drug use among this group is high; studies have found that 64% used drugs in the four weeks before custody and 48% reported using while committing a crime; 88% reported ever taking drugs. Many more young people are referred to services outside custodial units –in youth offending services or community-based projects.
What does ‘prevention’ mean for this group?
Many of these young people miss out on the universal prevention programmes delivered in schools. So more targeted approaches are needed and prevention has to be broadly defined. This includes harm reduction, acknowledging that this target group were already using and trying to prevent more harmful patterns of use. At the same time, since drugs are illegal, practitioners found that it was not always easy to adopt a harm reduction approach within criminal justice contexts. Interviewees spoke about the importance of addressing the many connected problems affecting these young people rather than concentrating on drug use alone. Building resilience was frequently mentioned as was the need to engage young people in prevention projects through collaborative work, use of technology and social media approaches.
Find out more!
Link to author’s bio on Middlesex University website https://www.mdx.ac.uk/about-us/our-people/staff-directory/profile/thom-betsy