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Drugs, Young People and the Internet

Alan Dearling, Research Fellow, Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime, University of Luton

This is a shortened version of the paper that the author presented at the national conference hosted by Luton University, entitled: Young People, Drugs and Community Safety. For reasons of space, the bibliography and glossary have been omitted. It appeared in the journal Social Work in Europe drugs in Europe special issue, Vol 5 no 2, Summer 1998.

Why the Internet?

I’m definitely not a computer or Internet expert. This contribution is derived from my own induction into using the net, and my personal decision to use it to help me in my work as a researcher and writer. In the past two years, I have found that Internet access enabled me to:

  • use search engines and web browsers to conduct subject searches and locate sites of potential interest;
  • download and print out information and documents;
  • use the hyperlinks included on web sites to visit other sites;
  • identify the names and special interests of researchers/staff and then e-mail them individually;
  • conduct bibliographic research trawls in library and agency resource sites;
  • receive messages and indeed large documents through my own e-mail address/post box (this can speed up editing and other aspects of publishing and writing);
  • leave messages on noticeboards for future visitors and the webmaster.

It is a particularly effective communications tool in the drugs field and probably offers more opportunities than in some other specialist fields of study. As one gains expertise in using the net for making contacts and searching for information, it becomes apparent that ‘drugs’ is a subject area which has a better geographical spread of sites, compared to some other topic areas such as ‘policing’, where there are a lot of sites and information, but the vast majority of reference material emanates from North America.

There are a lot of people involved in, or interested in drugs. They are a world-wide community. They have a large presence on the Web and they include: traffickers and dealers; enforcement agencies; national and international agencies responsible for documenting the epidemiological and social effects of drugs; agencies using intervention and prevention strategies; researchers and research agencies; individual users; campaigning groups, both pro- and anti-, all, or particular, forms of drug use. Many of them also make use of the net to give, receive and exchange information and opinion.

The focus of this contribution is on three areas in which researchers, managers and workers may find that the Internet has something to offer with regard to drugs:

  • The Internet is increasingly a global means of communication between individuals and groups of people who are trying to make contact with like-minded individuals or seek information. Users contact each other by e-mail if they know the specific address they want to reach, and use previously identified web site addresses and search engines to surf for web sites, as yet undiscovered. They can leave noticeboard messages or messages on e-mail located at the web site.
  • It is frequently referred to as ‘the information super highway’ and this is not inaccurate. Research agencies, state quangos and campaigning groups all operate web sites offering information; opinion; and hyperlinks to other related or relevant sites. This information will be an increasing source of education, as the web continues to grow. Young and old people alike can get access to all sites, unless access has been barred by the service provider or network users. And, obviously, this includes practice and management material on responses to drug use, whether at the control, prevention or harm reduction end of the response spectrum;
  • The Internet also exists as a research community in its own right and research itself can be conducted using the net.

Among a number of Internet topics not covered here are: newsgroups (see an interesting article by Mann and Sutton in the British Journal of Criminology vol 38 no.2, Spring 1998, about crime and criminal research on the net); building web sites; and choosing browsers.

Young people and drugs

Drug use is frequently characterised as a youthful pursuit. It has historic and contemporary links with the music and counter-cultural scenes stretching from the ‘beat’ scene of reefers and cool jazz in the fifties; through the hippy and free festival times of Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (documented in Wolfe, 1968), Oz, and Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the sixties and early seventies; and more recently the inner urban housing estates of contemporary Europe with Welsh’s Trainspotting, and the raves, parties and dance floors of everywhere from Berlin to Ibitha, Goa and Manchester, and the international sound systems of Exodus Collective (e-mail at: 101370.336@compuserve.com), Desert Storm, Dubious, Zion Train (their wide ranging site includes drugs info: http://www.cityscape.co.uk/users/cs23/ziontrain/index/html) and Spiral Tribe (e.g., try the Freedom Network web site at: http://www.freedomnet.demon.co.uk). In May 1998, the Exodus Collective from Luton have even been invited to work with the government’s Social Exclusion Unit members to look at worthwhile responses to drugs, housing and employment problems (reported in the Big Issue, May 11-17, 1998).

The young people of the late 1990s are part of a generation who have experience of both illicit and illegal drugs AND computers throughout adolescence, and sometimes even earlier. Arguably, both are part of the social and recreational world of young people. The very fact that the cyber cafe has become a focus for social life in many parts of the UK, and elsewhere, may place the Internet into the same category as the video film and the arcade game – a source of amusement and information. For many younger users the net is their newspaper, their source of party info. and other listings, and it’s interactive! There are even sites dedicated to maintaining Internet freedom. (Many servers including America On-Line, Compuserve and Demon are ‘policing’ what you can and can’t view/use on net sites. If they stop you making full use of the site, they deem it ‘unstable’; see. Campaign for Internet Freedom: http://www.netfreedom.org/)

Young people use computers with modems to visit Internet web sites which offer information about drugs for a variety of reasons, including:

  • to find out sources for supplying drugs;
  • to learn about the range and diversity of drugs (legal and illegal) and their effects;
  • to exchange opinions on, and campaign (often for the legalisation of particular drugs);
  • to find information on making drugs, growing plants which have hallucinogenic effects, testing the quality of drugs and avoiding detection;
  • to explore the wider range of cultural and counter-cultural sites, for instance, about direct action, environmental protest or music festivals (these may include drugs-related material, or hyperlinks to other more specific sites).

For those working with young people in social welfare and those who need to research aspects of their social behaviour, the Internet can be a invaluable resource. However, it may actually exacerbate the tendency to stereotype youthful behaviour as ‘incorrigible’ and ‘deviant’. In the context of drugs use, it is salutary to note that the focus of nearly all drugs information both in the media and from many drugs’ monitoring organisations focuses on youthful use of soft and hard drugs which is seen as ‘problematic’ or at least a ‘nuisance’. Only rarely does one see reference to prescribed medicines, alcohol or tobacco in the same pieces of writing or research.

One of the greatest worries with the use of the world wide web by young people is that they will be subjected to the social and peer pressure of the net as a sub-cultural environment. At street level, the Dutch have based their policy of decriminalising soft drugs on the tactic of separating the markets for soft and hard drugs (see Trimbos Institute Fact Sheet 7 at: http://www.trimbos.nl/indexuk.html). But many web sites include information about all drugs, and the attractive, experimental lifestyles which appear to be inextricably linked. For example, the Urban75 web site from Brixton states:

These pages aren’t intended to be the definitive drugs information service, but as a straight talking, bullshit free resource for those interested in finding out more about drugs……We’re not interested in boasting about how cool drugs are or how many pills you can take in a night, neither are we going to deliver any moral lectures or tell you that drugs are the work of Satan – we’re just interested in giving people the facts and letting them make up their own minds.

(Urban75 at: http://www.urban75.com)

In a very real sense, the Internet is a double-edged sword in relation to drugs education strategies with young people. Nearly anyone paying to be on-line with a server is allocated an amount of web space for the creation of their own web page. The more youthful organisations in the UK and elsewhere have seized this opportunity to share information and offer services, many aimed at young Internet users. As Mann and Swann (1998) have said that the Net’s aim is the,

exchange and dissemination of information regardless of boundaries and professional hierarchies and to offer support for deviancy.

In Amsterdam’s coffee shops, since 1996 it has been illegal to sell soft drugs and alcohol on the same premises, or indeed to sell to under 18s. But in the virtual world of the web pages, there’s no age bar to obtaining material about the whole spectrum of drugs (accurate and inaccurate), or even invitations to grow plants with hallucinogenic properties. Similarly, it provides opportunities for anyone to buy kits to test products for psychedelic properties. For instance, at the Conscious Dreams site (http://www.neturl.nl/codreams) there is information about the E-Z Test for Ecstasy and other Psychedelic drugs, which is on sale in their Amsterdam shop. Using a pin-head sample from a pill or whatever, the user can then determine with some degree of precision, the elements of MDMA, LSD etc. contained in the specimen. Tongue-in-cheek, the site offers the disclaimer:

This product is meant for entertainment purposes only.

Also of interest is the site established by the late, Nicholas Saunders (now run by the Green Party Drugs Group) in a move to encourage self-help drug testing and legalisation of more drugs:

  • http://www.ecstasy.org

The site has already been visited by over three million people internationally.

Other sites offering alternative cultural views on drugs are:

  • Hyperreal at: http://www.hperreal.com/
  • Paranoia at: http://www.paranoia.com/drugs
  • New Scientist Planet Science at: http://www.marijuana.newscientist.com
  • Stop the Drug War Coalition at: http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/globalcoalition
  • Rebel Inc. at: http://www.canongate.co.uk/rebelinc/

Drug use and the responses

To some extent, the ‘level’ of the perceived ‘problem’ is one of social construction. Keith Hellawell, the UK Anti-Drugs Co-ordinator, has been appointed as Drugs Czar to head up Labour’s ‘war on drugs’. The government strategy announced on April 27th 1998 (see at the ISDD web site listed later) has four elements: (1) to help young people to resist drugs, (2) to protect communities from drug-related anti-social behaviour, (3) to offer treatment to people with drug problems, and (4) to stifle the availability of drugs. A Cabinet sub-committee chaired by Ann Taylor has been established to co-ordinate the efforts. But, the strategy, and the hard line stance being taken by Jack Straw, as Home Secretary and the Labour administration, seems to offer no differentiation between the types of drugs being used or the social context of their use. This may serve to emasculate the message for harm reduction. Even more worrying, or nonsensical, depending upon your point of view, is the unwillingness of successive governments to review the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Some would argue change for ideological reasons and other for pragmatic. Strangely it has been left to the Police Federation to set up an inquiry, now accredited as the Royal Commission on drugs in the UK, under Viscount Runciman. (Jenkins, 1997). See the main government site on statutory legislation at: http://www.open.gov.uk/ from where you can also reach the Home Office and other government sites.

There is also widespread concern that the reaction is one of ‘moralising panic’, designed to allay public concern, but thereby demonising the many, who:

each weekend, at least half a million young people – typically they are employed, law abiding and middle class – take ecstasy. It may be the biggest drugs experiment in history. (Davies, 1997)

Or even more Machiavellian, and contestable, would be the view of Alan Lodge and others who are participants in the counter-cultural as well as being social commentators. Lodge suggests,

every meeting designed to work out a solution (about drugs) has been used by police merely as an intelligence-gathering exercise. (quoted in Davies op cit.)

Alan Lodge, better known as Tash, has been compiling words and photos about the festival and counter-cultural scene of young people in the UK for over twenty five years and has a very developed web site at:

  • http://www.ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/tash lodge

The site includes hyperlinks to many other related sites.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is the central agency charged by the EU with collecting reliable drugs information, and it also co-ordinates the REITOX network, ‘the human and computer at the heart of the collection and exchange of data on drugs in Europe’. (EMCDDA, 1997) (This very important site is a ‘must’ for researchers and also provides hyperlinks to the REITOX network and beyond at: http://www.emcdda.org)

The EMCDDA defines the purpose of ‘harm reduction’ strategies within drug control policy as to:

  • increase the safety of communities from drug related crime;
  • reduce the acceptability and availability of drugs to young people;
  • reduce the health risks and other damage related to drug misuse.

Researchers looking for comparative information and statistics about prevalence of drug use and state interventions will find much of use to them at the EMCDDA site. They will also realise that whilst there certainly is greater co-ordination in the collection of data, policy formulation and strategic intervention in drugs is one of the world’s most politicised footballs. Another extremely useful site with links to most of the UK drug agencies working both in prevention and enforcement is:

  • Institute for Study of Drug Dependence at: http://www.isdd.co.uk/menu.html

Also worth a visit are:

  • Aventinus (still under construction) at: http://www.dcs.shef.ac.uk/research/groups/nlp/funded/aventinus.html
  • European University Institute at Florence, which offers some useful research on-line at: http://www.iue.it/

At the level of trafficking, most governments in the first and second world economies are willing to be seen to be acting in accord against drug producing and transit countries. However, the economic reliance of those countries on drug income has to be weighed carefully against the social disruption caused by the drug producers and traffickers working out of those countries. It is a complex and difficult problem, where peasants cultivate drugs in countries like Colombia and Peru, but as little as one-tenth of the income goes to them, the rest goes to foster traffickers’ extravagant lifestyles, corruption, torture, warfare and murder. (Clutterbuck, 1995) In Morocco, the authorities are more concerned about the economic costs and potential losses involved in agricultural alternatives to growing kif (cannabis). Nash (1997) says,

the local agricultural authorities (in Morocco) concede that kif is twice as profitable as alternatives such as wheat and that hefty subsidies will be necessary to persuade farmers to grow alternative crops.

For more information on strategies to prevent production and distribution (and other aspects) there are many world wide sites, including:

  • The Lindesmith Research Center at: http://www.lindesmith.org
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation has hyperlinks to most government sites around the world at: http://www.eff.org/govt.html
  • National Institute for Drug Abuse at: http://www.nida.nih.gov/
  • United Nations International Drug Control Program in Vienna at: http://www.undcp.org/index.html
  • United Nations Crime and Justice Network at: http://www.ifs.univie.ac.at/~uncjin/uncijn.html
  • World Health Organisation at: http://www.who.ch
  • Interpol at: http://193.123.144/interpol-pr/
  • Europol conference page at: http://www.infowar.com/papers/conf_011498a.html-ssi
  • Association of European Police Colleges at: http://www.aepc.net/-
  • International Foundation for Drug Policy and Human Rights in the Netherlands at: http://www.drutext.nl/right.htm (This hosts material from the International Journal of Drug Policy and has many links to relevant sites, including the Release organisation in the UK).

The other two, more young people specific, aspects of drug use are where the pattern of use is:

  • seen as a nuisance or causes anti-social and criminal behaviour, which leads to a wide range of international, state and regional responses; and
  • a health concern, in which case responses may be determined by legislation, but open to the vagaries of funding, resources and the vagaries of local interpretation.

Many of the sites already mentioned include useful information and examples or practical interventions. But, don’t expect a high degree of harmonisation of responses across national boundaries. Neither the pattern of drug use, or, indeed personal Internet use, is uniform world wide. For instance:

The proportion of world wide web users as a proportion of the total population

  • US 15%
  • Finland 12%
  • Sweden 12%
  • UK 7%
  • Japan 4%
  • Austria 3%
  • Italy 2%
  • Spain 2%

(Source: International Data Corporation: World Fact Book, 1997)

One can surmise that this figure is rapidly changing and that younger people are more likely over-represented amongst those who are on-line.

In terms of patterns of drug use (in the last twelve months) amongst what the EMCDDA refers to in their 1997 Annual Report as ‘younger adults’ (approximately 18-40), the UK comes top with 13% saying that they have used cannabis as against only 3% in Finland. Yet Spain has the highest response at 3.2% for use of cocaine. In school surveys of 15-16 year olds, the questioners asked respondents whether they had ever used drugs. The results showed that 3-7% said they had used cannabis in Finland, Sweden, Greece, Luxembourg and Portugal; this rose to between 15-22% in Belgium, Netherlands, France and Spain, and 37% in Ireland and the UK. In Sweden and Greece, solvents are the most commonly abused drugs amongst 15-16 year olds.

There are a number of web sites which offer information for young people (and professionals) to look at; four are listed below. Site visitors can either just browse information about drugs and their likely effects, or can choose screen options to move on to particular sections of information, whether it is ‘raves and dance drugs’ or ‘counselling’ or ‘your opinion’. Crew 2000, who offer training on the safer organisation of raves and similar are at: http://www.electricfrog.co.uk/crew2000

Lifeline (Manchester) are one of the most reputable drugs advice agencies in the UK. They say:

Lifeline’s view on drug use is ‘agnostic’, we neither believe that it is an intrinsically bad or good thing to do….our corporate moral commitment is to tell the truth about drugs and drug users.

Lifeline at: http://www.lifeline.demon.co.uk

See also:

  • Tacade at: http://www.tacade.com
  • Youthnet/The Page at: http://www.org.uk/

Surveys and research

The actual use of the Internet as a survey tool for research data on drugs issues is relatively new. Not related to young people, but nevertheless of interest, is Ross Coomber’s research (Coomber, 1997b) with 80 dealers in 14 countries on whether they ‘cut’ drugs they sold with other substances. The findings bore out Coomber’s earlier UK research (Coomber, 1997a) where 31 dealers in the south-east London were questioned about their practices, with specific reference to dilution/adulteration. As Coomber (1997b) concludes,

…what takes place in the drugs world is in fact often mundane and logically predictable – as a rule, dealers do not want to harm people, either because they are not that way inclined or because they want to preserve their business or both.

So, in this instance, the Internet research study directly contradicted the popular image of drugs being adulterated with glycerine or worse on a regular basis. (for instance, Welsh, Trainspotting and the BBC drama series, Looking after Jo-Jo). At Sociological Research Online, you will find Coomber’s very detailed report, Using the Internet for Survey Research (1997c) which provides useful information on how the Internet can be used to obtain research results, in confidence, from hard-to-reach groups in society.

Sociological Research Online at: http://www.socresonline.org.uk

Other research which has come to my notice on the Internet could be conducted for a variety of purposes, some not legal! At the Drugtext site, already listed, there are forms to fill in regarding a variety of drugs, price, quality, location purchased. And at the Drug Price Report site which I found at: http://www.paranoia.com/drugs/price.report/w_index.html

The results of a drug survey conducted inside and outside of the US can be obtained. An example entry is:

Luton, Jan 1997

Marijuana: skunk crossed with haze: £20-25 1/8 oz; £140 per oz.

Quality: A. Mind-blowing, especially through a water or electric pipe.

Availability: D; grown local, so only available in season.

 

In conclusion

This is very much an introductory guide to the uses which can be made by researchers, managers and staff in the broad range of social welfare organisations. I am grateful to the participants at the Luton drugs conference and Gary Hayes at the ISDD for their useful suggestions about Internet use and interesting sites.

Hopefully, this contribution has also given some insight into how young people may choose to use the Internet for themselves. It is a quickly evolving field, so be warned, you may have to play detective and go surfing for some of the sites mentioned as they can move location and server rather often. It is also very easy to type in some of the e-mail and web site addresses wrongly, which is continual source of frustration for web users. Finally, sites and servers can also go off-line or fail to respond.

Two tips.

One: for those looking for information on a particular topic is to try and choose key words for conducting searches, which accurately describe what you are looking for. You can link them together into a phrase using + signs between words. For instance ‘drugs+counter+culture+uk’. Upper and lower case do not matter, but avoid inserting spaces or omitting punctuation at your peril!

Two: Not all search engines are linked coherently to web sites. I use a website at: http://www.dogpile.com/

This performs a useful (and free service) which allows the search to be conducted across about five search engine platforms at a time. This can save a great deal of time, moving from one search engine site to the next performing the same search. http://www.hotboot.com/Ses/index/html is another site where Hotboot and a whole range of other search engines can be located. Happy hunting!

For drugs workers, the police, social services or counselling agencies, it is obvious that there is already a great deal of information available on the net. For different people and agencies this means that using the Internet and the world wide web:

  • can be used to inform strategic planning and practice;
  • may provide information on drugs use;
  • speed up the transfer of information between e-mail users;
  • will allow the researcher to obtain varying opinions on the effects of drugs and interventions to limit harm or reduce use;
  • can be a means of offering drugs information and education to young people;
  • to contact individuals and users as part of field research.

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