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By Michael Shiner (auth.)

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Society, he argued, is made up of a large number of groups or subcultures offering solutions to the problems that are generated by the social position of their members. While different groups have different problems, drugs offer a common means of problem solving. Psychotropic or mood-altering substances are valued because they are pharmacologically suited to realising certain culturally defined aspirations: they may, for example, provide a source of relaxation and enjoyment or may help users forget their workday worries.

Using data from the North West cohort study, the BCS and YLS, Shiner and Newburn (1997, 1999) showed that young people were fairly evenly divided between those who had used illicit drugs and those who had not. They also highlighted the dynamic nature of drug use, demonstrating how lifetime measures – which indicate whether an individual has ever used a drug – exaggerate the extent of such behaviour. When measures based on shorter timeframes were used evidence of normalisation inevitably became more elusive and regular use, however defined, remained a minority activity (see also, Ramsay and Percy, 1996).

According to Shiner and Newburn (1999: 149) the trend implied by such differences ‘is one of evolution over an extended period rather than of a sharp, fundamental structural shift’ and does not support the contention that changes in patterns of drug use since the late 1980s are indicative of major epochal change. This interpretation is further supported by the limited historical evidence that is available. In its initial report, published in 1961, the Inter-Departmental Committee on Drug Addiction, 36 Drug Use and Social Change headed by Sir Russell Brain, concluded that drug supply in Britain was almost negligible, but then gave a revised opinion four years later when it noted a marked increase in use.

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