Young People and drugs – an evolving landscape

person holding tablets
In May, it was widely reported that two people had died after taking drugs at the Mutiny Festival in Portsmouth. A potential 13 other people were also taken to hospital, although it wasn’t entirely clear if all were drug related. One of them was in a critical condition. The organisers put out a ‘harm prevention alert’ following the deaths and  released a statement confirming the deaths, warning that a “bad batch” of drugs were being supplied within the festival. Presumably the organisers assumed that all the non-fatal drugs that were taken during the festival, came from the “good batch”. It was a  ridiculous statement for such a tragic set of circumstances, an opportunity missed. They could have sent a clear message to all those attending, that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ illegal drug, or for that matter a ‘legal high’.The two people who died were 18-year old Georgia Jones and 20-year old Tommy Cowan. Courageously, Georgia’s mother went on record and urged other’s not to take drugs, describing how her own daughter had died. Georgia had apparently consumed two pills, which had caused her temperature to rise so much, that she suffered a 45-minute fit. Her organs began to fail, her lungs began to fill with blood and fluid and her heart stopped several times. Her mother had to make the very brave and most painful decision to have her life support turned off. In the days that followed it was reported that the “ bad batch” were potentially super-strength Green Heineken ecstasy pills.

A week before the sad events in Hampshire, the authorities in Kent announced that they intended to stock thousands of anti-overdose kits. This followed a recommendation from Public Health England  (PHE) that Kent stock over 3,000 naloxone kits. PHE had looked at the number of naloxone kits needed by each local authority to reverse the effects of opiate overdose. In their report ‘Fentanyl: preparing for a future threat’ they focused on powerful opioids, basing their findings on the number of registered drug users receiving treatment for opiate use and the number drug-related deaths in each area. This issue was specifically highlighted in Kent for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Kent has particular high  levels of fatalities (213 drug related deaths between 2014-2016). Secondly, the MP for Dover and Deal Charlie Elphicke, together with a local woman Michelle Parry had campaigned for action, following the death in 2016 of Michelle’s 18-year old son Robert, from a Fentanyl overdose.

At the beginning of June, police issued on the dangers of taking ‘Snapchat pills’ after two women became seriously ill and were hospitalised , having taken small yellow, brick-shaped tablets made to resemble the Snapchat mobile app logo. It was not reported what these pills actually were, but there is a good chance that they were newly manufactured synthetic drugs, potentially pressed Ecstasy.  Around the same time disturbing images were widely circulated on social media, showing the effects that the former ‘legal high’ Spice can have on people. The picture showed three men slumped over like zombies , in a street in Bridgend.

Widely circulated photo of 3 men in Bridgend , said to be under the influence of Spice

On the day we began to write this article (23rd June) ,15-year-old Hannah Bragg and an unnamed 14-year old boy were found unwell near an unused viaduct in Tavistock, Devon. Both were taken to hospital where sadly Hannah later died. The police stated that they believe that “both teenagers suffered adverse reactions having taken an, as yet unknown, substance or substances”. A few days after, police arrested three people in connection with the death. They were a 20-year-old man for conspiracy to supply a controlled class A substance and two boys , aged 14 and 15 years , both on suspicion of supplying a controlled class A drug.

The accessibility of many of these drugs has also been highlighted recently in the media. The availability of the prescription only drug  Xanax on social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, has been highlighted as a real safeguarding issue. Many young people now view these type of prescription only medications, as recreational drug. Such is the concern, that the issue has been raised in parliament. As well as the dangers of the drug itself, there is the heightened danger that most of the pills on sale are fake and manufactured with a whole host of nasty additives. Last week an online dealer, Bernard Rebelo was convicted of the manslaughter of 21-year old Eloise Parry. Eloise who suffered from Bulimia had purchased online slimming pills’ from Rebelo who advertised them on his website. The pills he supplied were toxic, containing the chemical pesticide dinitrophenol (DNP). Eloise started taking the pills in February 2015, and quickly became addicted to them. She was hospitalised several times from the side effects caused by the pills. She died after she took 8 of the pills within a few short hours.

 Whilst the majority of young people still don’t and won’t use drugs, the readers of this website will tend to deal with, or care for those young people that are more likely to use or at least come into contact with illegal substances.

The use of Class A drugs is still uncommon by young people, with Cannabis still the most widely used illegal drug. However, the use of ecstasy by young adults is still extremely high. What is clear is that the drug landscape for young people has very much shifted over the last few years. Robert, Georgia Hannah and Tommy were not drug addicts. Most young people are not, but frequent drug use in those early years can lead to long term addictions. What connects some of these deaths, is the drugs were taken for ‘recreational use’. If you look back at many of the drug related deaths of young people in the last 5 years, you will identify that the deaths occurred at, during or shortly after recreational activities – festivals, parties and raves.

Young people take drugs for a variety of reasons, including coping with pressures of school, home life, to fit in or socialize with their peers, to experiment and experience something new, to deal with depression or low mood. As safeguarding professionals, it is important that you have a basic  understanding of those drugs that are now favoured by young people, the signs that drug use may be taking place, the effects that they might have, and what they might look like. It is common for most professionals working directly with children (care home providers, social workers, foster carers, Key Workers) to say to us “ she’s on something”. That is the easy part, for the signs of drug use in young people is normally fairly obvious. They key and the much more difficult element to identify, is what they might be on, particularly if the young person is not engaging.

Cannabis is pretty easy thing to spot. A child returning home reeking of that sweet-smelling weed is a dead giveaway. However, most of the other ‘new’ drugs of choice, give little away. Many of the prescription only drugs can easily be mistaken for legitimate over the counter medication, unless examined properly by someone who knows that they are looking for. A recent police warning about the misuse of the anxiety drug Xanax (normally in tablet form) carried advice that dealers are now advertising the drug in the following formats – liquid, powder, sweets, vaporiser and as a  mouthwash. Neither are we talking about phantom-like hooded dealers lurking on darkened street corners or alleyways. Instead many dealers have taken to Facebook , Instagram and other major social media platforms to market their wares.

As police officers it is fairly easy for us to identify bags of heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine, but ask us to differentiate between Mephedrone (in tablet form) and contraceptive pills, and we would struggle. Would you know what Mephedrone is? You might recognise its street names Meow Meow or MCAT, but would you know what it looks like, the effects on young people and the risks. MCAT has been around for at least a decade and a few years ago was the fourth most popular drug after cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy. It has been attributed to numerous deaths.

No safeguarding professional needs to be an expert in drug identification. It is impossible, particularly when trying to differentiate between tablets, powders, capsules and pills. That is why we have scientists analyse drugs in criminal cases. However, what we do need to be aware of  is that drug choices amongst the young vary widely. There are many drugs out there and illegally sold prescription only drugs are becoming more prevalent. The toxicity of drugs is increasing , “super-strength” becoming a regular word used by law enforcement and drug charities. Accessibility is easier with young people able to source drugs through the internet, but also being widely available when they attend recreational events. This problem is particularly rife at unlicensed music events, which has seen several drug related deaths.

As we researched this article, it became apparent that the scale of the news stories relating to the deaths of young people from legal and illegal substances, was absolutely staggering. Sadly, as we put the finishing touches to this article on Sunday 8th July, reports began to appear, concerning the death of 15-year Shakira Pellow, who had passed away the previous Friday at Camborne, Cornwall. Shakira had collapsed in the street after taking what were described as small blue tablets marked with the logo ‘Duplo’, in reference to the child’s Lego toys. She later died in hospital. Three other teenagers were also admitted to hospital, whilst two 17-year-old boys were arrested on suspicion of being concerned in the supply of a controlled drug. Drug related deaths in young people are more prevalent than most of us might think.

So, our message in this article is simply this, the drug landscape has changed. If you are on a day to day frontline team dealing with young people, e.g. teachers, foster carers , care home providers, social workers, youth offending teams, then we suggest it might now be a pertinent time to refresh any drug training input you have had in the past. If you have never had any form of training, then it may be worth suggesting this subject to your agency leads as a topic for your next training session. It is  important that you have a general awareness of the drug scene for this generation. There are several organisations out there that offer interesting and innovative drug training.

Below are some of the drugs causing issues amongst young people. It is not a definitive guide, but purely a snapshot of what is out there. For more detailed information, we suggest that you consult a  good website that specialises in drug identification and advice, FRANK and Drug Wise being two of the most prominent. We also like the Australian site the Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

Thanks for reading.

 

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By / Published On: July 10th, 2018 / Tags: , / Categories: Analysis, Safeguarding Hub Blog, Working With Children /

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