The Best Antidote for Drug Use Isn't Tougher Drug Laws--It's Growing Old

Yesterday we published the results of the biggest survey of drug use ever conducted, the Global Drug Survey 2015 , with responses from more than 100,000 people across the world. More than 25,000 former users told us why they had quit using particular drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, and their answers confirmed something that governments often prefer to ignore: that drug use is not a “disorder”. In most cases it is meaningful, goal-oriented behaviour. And when the drugs no longer do what we want them to, most of us stop.

For commonly used illicit drugs the main reasons given for quitting were: not liking the effects anymore; having had a bad experience; becoming concerned about the effects on health; the drug not fitting with their lifestyle; not seeing the same friends anymore; or just “getting too old for this sort of thing”. These decisions are also shaped by life-course considerations and there is a tendency for users to “grow out” of this type of behaviour. Our main message, in other words, is that there is a rational aspect to these decisions and the most appropriate response is providing accurate information that facilitates sensible choices and keeps people safe, rather than scaremongering or trying to enforce laws that are widely broken.

There is ample evidence that drug laws don’t stop lots of people trying drugs. Our findings also show that, once they have started, drug control and the fear of arrest or prosecution have little to do with people’s decisions to stop using. Bad drug laws arguably make the years of taking drugs more dangerous, as users have to run the risk of a criminal record and rely on informal, inconsistent and impure sources of supply. So I guess you could ask of our current drug laws – what are they good for? ( Sing Edwin Starr if you must.)

One of the primary reasons given for quitting a drug was age. Most of our respondents were aged between 18 and 34, which is probably the safest time to use drugs in your life. Your brain has mostly developed and, for many, the hurdles of young adulthood will have been dealt with. As we get older we become physiologically less resilient to lack of sleep, hangovers and the stresses that stimulants place on our hearts and chronic excessive drinking places on our liver – to say nothing of the additional challenges posed by demanding jobs, partners and children. As a result, most of us slow down. The 15% or so of active drug users in their 40s who took part in our survey had mostly done exactly that. For those who have not slowed down, the risk of an abrupt wake up call remains.

As we get older we become less resilient to lack of sleep and the stress stimulants place on our hearts, so we slow down

Motivations for change varied for users of licit and illicit substances. Being aware of how substances harm one’s health drives many people to change their behaviour, with such concerns being greater for alcohol and tobacco than illegal drugs. More often than not respondents to our survey didn’t need any outside help, they just stopped. It is notable that while most ex-users did not make a conscious decision to stop using cocaine or MDMA, most did for tobacco, alcohol and cannabis. And stopping doesn’t seem to mean for ever, with many ex-users open to a cheeky line, spliff or pill in the future.

But our results show clearly that for most people the regular use of illicit drugs is a passing phase to let go of as life changes. Drug policy needs to focus on keeping people safe through their teens and 20s and developing a society that grants universal access to the emerging and rewarding responsibilities of adulthood. This might mean starting new conversations and developing tools that simply accept some people will take drugs. We could provide guidance about safer drug use limits – a bit like we do with alcohol. In a week or so, the Global Drug Survey team will release the world’s first safer drug using limits (starting with cannabis) – a sort of recommended maximum intake, if you like – based on information provided by tens of thousands of people who use drugs. We hope people will let us know what they think. We think “growing up” (How do you say that without sounding like patronising old gits? Don’t bother answering that – we are both in our 40s) is the best agent of change and what users need most is a little help to stay safe along the way.


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