Parker, H., Williams, L., Aldridge, J. (2002) 'The Normalization of "Sensible" Recreational Drug Use: further evidence from the North-West England Longitudinal Study', in Sociology, 36 (4): 941 - 964.

This piece offers a follow-up to Parker et al (1998) and to a number of other pieces generated from the same research. For my summary of the 1998 work see my file on drugs and lesiure policy here.

[One controversial finding of that first work was that drug use is becoming  'normalized', and this has seemed too extreme for some commentators, who have pointed to the continuing sense of guilt and regret expressed by drug-users, and to the lack of acceptance of drug-use by many young people]. Normalization is further clarified as a concept, and expresses how  individuals become  'included in as many features of conventional every day  "normal"  life as possible, from life's rhythms and routines to economic and environmental  "standards" of life' (942). The work was originally applied to examine the acceptance of people with disabilities, and was borrowed by Parker et al to  'make sense of the findings of a unique longitudinal study of several hundred  "ordinary"  young people's experiences of growing up  "drugwise"' (942). Being drugwise refers to knowledge about drugs, and toleration of their use. Using the term normalization also suggests that there is a loss of respect for the law, and thus a need to 'adapt to social and cultural change' (943)., and this is how the concept has been used in Dutch drugs policy. It is clear that normalization is not a fixed process but a variable one -- for example using cannabis maybe becoming more, while cigarette smoking is becoming less normalized. Normalization can be measured in more specific terms:

(1) Access and availability. Growth here can be demonstrated by a number of measures, including amounts seized by the police, the fall in street price of drugs, surveys which show that, for example, '61 per cent to 15 year-olds [in England] had been offered at least one drug' (944). There are also changes in routes to access -- 'Most young people, even clubbers... obtain their drugs through social networks and friends-of-friends chains connected to small dealers' (944) which avoids risky contact with criminal dealers. As a result, existing laws about supply may be need to change.

(2) Drug trying rates. There may be differences among different cohorts here, although overall,  'adolescent drug trying in the UK had been rising steeply across the [1990s]' (945). There are regional differences, with high rates found in Scotland and northern England ('between 50 and 60 per cent of mid adolescents disclose drug trying, predominantly of cannabis, followed by amphetamines'), and the UK seems to have the 'highest rate of drug trying of 26 European countries'  (945).  [These data come from a number of other studies which are cited and summarised by the authors -- see the original for details]. However, there is also evidence of a plateau effect, and differences between this early cohort and the later generation  (who seem to have lower rates). At the same time, young adults seem to be increasing their drug trying behaviour, with onset at age 20, and even 25. Much of the work here comes from studies of students, and 'All these studies variously suggests that majority of university students, up to 60 per cent, have some drug experience, a figure which has doubled over the past 15 years' (946), again covering mostly cannabis. Here, the characteristics of these drug-takers are 'very little different' from the other students, another measure of normalization.

(3) Recent and regular drug use. A number of surveys indicate that, for example, "over a quarter of 20 - 22 year-olds were recent users' (946), and a figure of around 20 - 25 per cent seems to be replicated in other studies as well, although it lies between 10 and 15 per cent for  'late adolescents' (947). Within this picture, clubbers are 'immensely drug experienced, with lifetime rates of cannabis trying at nearly 100 per cent, rates for amphetamines, LSD and Ecstasy in the 60 to 90 per cent range, with cocaine slightly lower but rising' (947). Alcohol has also commonly used. The clubbers are an interesting group, perhaps because they have different strategies of normalising their activities  [perhaps by confining it to weekends, or by using separation techniques as in notions of 'moral holiday' and 'escape'?].

(4) Social accommodation of sensible recreational drug use. Most studies 'Note the presence of a rational, consumerist, decision-making process which distinguishes between drugs, their effects and dangers and identify as a style of recreational drug use which can be accepted or at least tolerated by non-users or cautious drug triers' (948). What might be seen as extreme drug-users are condemned, and cannabis seems to be more likely to be accepted than other drugs.There are problems with studying attitudes, for example that they do not always match behaviour, but it is important to do so. The very young remain hostile to drug-use, but change their minds as they get older.

(5) Cultural accommodation. This is even more difficult to study, but there is evidence that drug taking now features more commonly as normal on television programmes, and in films and magazines. Public opinion surveys seem to show 'a majority of Britons in favour of some decriminalisation  [of cannabis]' (949). The values of young drug users themselves seem to be gaining acceptance, in that it is now common to organise drugs according to their 'dangerousness', and policy is beginning to follow the actual experience of the  'drugwise'. (949).

[There follows a discussion of the methods actually used in the longitudinal study which you should consult for yourselves. It does seem to be quite a large survey, with a total of 465 people revisited from the original research exercise. Questionnaires and interviews were pursued. Checks were made for consistency with opinions given earlier, and reliability was also tested. The results are summarised in more detail pages 952 - 8. Among minor points of interest, LSD apparently shows a fall in availability, men are slightly more likely to be offered drugs than women, and gender differences persist with the older groups as well, although they are small. Drug dealers are not widely used in supply, although there is some blurring between the categories 'small-time drug dealer' and  'friend'. Frequency of use tends to be of the level of three times per month for cannabis, and once a month was common for other drugs. Another study* contains details of how drug-users actually do rationalise their activities, and overall there seems to be little personal guilt. Many abstainers have friends who take drugs, and generally tolerate them, especially if they use cannabis. A 'remarkably prevalent' pattern is to combine legal and illegal drugs (958)].

In conclusion, normalization does seem to be supported, although more research is needed. Overall, demand for drugs is high and access is easy, but only because of the informal arrangements among friends mentioned above. Again the risks of  'post modern times' (959) seem to be responsible. Drug use is increasingly fitted around the need to work. Serious recreational drug use is still  'a small minority activity' (960). Clubbing and partying remains the main occasion for the consumption of other drugs, and there are signs of less toleration and less pleasure here.

Policy makers would be wise to separate out cannabis from the other drugs, and the  'war on drugs discourse' seems to have little credibility. The most active cohort are the 'children of the Nineties' (960), and they might be seen as the vanguard in demanding change. Demands for further normalization are likely, and this situation 'begs for ... a public health/harm reduction component' in policy  (961), for example to warn against long-term health risks for cocaine use. Until then, "we will see cocaine users learning from experience and mishap transmitted through informal drug stories until collective drugs wisdom has been updated' (961).

*Williams, L.  and Parker, H. (2001) 'Alcohol, Cannabis, Ecstasy and Cocaine: Drugs of reasoned choice among young adult recreational drug users in England', in International Journal of Drug Policy, 12 (5/6): 397 - 413.

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