Last year was definitely the year of the 'synthetics'. It was so-called 'synthetic cannabis' that first attracted media attention and of course, we then had a number of young men who died across the country after taking a new synthetic product (NBOMe) that they believed was LSD. Synthetics have not completely disappeared but when new laws came into place and many of the compounds and products became illegal, they lost their attraction for many and even though many continue to be able to be bought over-the-counter (or rather 'under-the-counter' as one Year 10 told me last week) they appear to have peaked in popularity and are not as much of an issue as they once were.
So what do I see as the 'new' alcohol and other drug issues for 2014 and what do I believe we'll see in the headlines in the year ahead? I'd like to make it quite clear at this point that alcohol remains the main issue for school-based young people, it always has been and I don't see it changing anytime soon, but what I'm about to discuss are emerging or, in some cases, reemerging trends that anyone who works with young people should be aware of ...
- The increasing use of sports supplements and other performance and image enhancing drugs (PIEDs) by young men. Although it is steroids that usually attract media attention, there are a range of other products that are now being used by the very young. Late last year I was approached by the parents of a 14 year old boy who were holding a list of products that their son was using. They wanted my opinion on the risks associated with the use of these supplements which included protein powders, creatine monohydrate and amino acids. When I asked them why their son was using them their answer floored me - "Well, everyone else on his football team does ..."! I believe that this is an issue that is going to explode in the media this year - last year we saw the supplement scandal in professional sport play out in the daily news, it's only a matter of time before we see something similar with high school use of these products.
- Cannabis, cannabis, cannabis ... cannabis use has been on the decline amongst Australian high school students since the 90s but that seems to be changing. Almost every school I go to has had to either suspend or expel (or be 'removed from the school' as it is now sometimes called) students (usually Year 9s) who have been caught either using or selling cannabis. Most surprisingly I'm even seeing it at girls' schools - something we didn't really see even when cannabis rates were at their highest in this country ... When it comes to looking for reasons why this is happening I think you most probably have to say it is because we are now talking about cannabis in a much more positive way, what with discussion about the medical use of the drug, as well as the legalisation debate that is currently happening in many parts of the world. Talking about a drug more positively certainly leads to an increase in use ... no surprises there!
- I hope this next issue is due to growing awareness but I have never been contacted by as many young people concerned about friends who they believe may be developing a mental health problem associated with their cannabis use. These are usually young females worried about boyfriends but I'm also hearing from young men wanting advice around helping mates who they believe may have problems. Admittedly I talk about this issue to Year 11s in the schools I visit so I may be 'triggering' concerns, but what really concerns me here is that they have no idea of where to go for advice in this area. That astounds me when you consider the huge range of options that young people now have when it comes to places they can go to should they have mental health problems themselves or be worried about friends. Why isn't that message getting through and/or why don't they want to access these services?
- Police have had the power to issue a caution to juveniles who are found with small amounts of drugs, ensuring that these young people don't find themselves with a criminal record at such an early age for some time now. This year I have come into contact with a growing number of students with cautions for drug possession who seem to have absolutely no idea of the consequences of what this actually means ... Two that particularly stick in my mind are a 16 year old girl with three cannabis cautions (one more and she will find herself in court) and a Year 12 student with a caution for cocaine possession (how could he possibly afford that drug?) and there have been many more who have approached me after a presentation to share with me that they have a caution and what did that actually mean? I'm certainly not suggesting that we need to get tougher on young people, I just think that when we talk about illicit drugs with students, we need to talk more about the legal consequences (realistically, they're the ones they're most likely to experience) and what these can mean for their future.
- Younger and younger people attending dance festivals - this is one area that gets me into trouble and I just filmed a spot on tabloid news program 'A Current Affair' about this issue and I can almost feel the backlash I am going to get! I've worked in the nightlife area for many years, I've even helped put on many major dance events over the past 25 years, and I'm sorry, I simply don't believe they're events that 15 and 16 year olds should attend ... I know some people don't agree with me and I'm sure there are some very young people who do love the music and do actually have the maturity to go to music festivals and dance parties and not be affected adversely by the drug culture, but they would certainly be in the minority. As I said in my interview with ACA, if you're a parent of a 15 or 16 year old and you think these are events that your son or daughter should attend, go there first and have a look for yourself! I am seeing greater and greater numbers of really young people (15 year olds) who are going to these events and put simply, that's not their intended audience and they are going to be exposed to a culture that can be difficult for some to cope with ...
- Even though I've raised some illicit drug issues above it is still extremely important to remember that we currently have less school-based young people use illicit drugs than we have for some time. The 2011 ASSAD Survey shows that we have the lowest rate of current illicit drug use (use in the last 12 months) since Australia-wide data was first collected (apart from cannabis use that did rise slightly, but still far lower rates than in the past) and that certainly reflects my experience in schools. Of course there are some who will use illicit drugs and many who will be exposed to a drug culture but let's not forget the huge number of young people who will not have any interest in this activity ... we never talk about them!
- More young people are now making the decision not to drink alcohol and being brave enough to let others know about their choice. Years ago when I would talk about 'non-drinking' as an option it would be extremely rare to see a student admit to being a 'non-drinker' themselves, in fact, they would almost try to hide. That is now changing. Friends will often turn to the non-drinker in their group, often acknowledging their choice in a very positive way, and that young person will smile and nod, obviously quite proud of themselves. These young people are now often regarded as extremely important members of friendship groups as they are either the people who look after those that do drink, or become the designated drivers. They are no longer seen as the 'social pariah' they once were and this should be celebrated. This is a major cultural change and, to be honest, something that you don't necessarily see in the adult world!