Children With Drug Problems Aren’t Criminals – They’re Victims

by Ian Hamilton


Drugs – including alcohol – play a sinister role in child sexual exploitation, and if we want to bring drug death numbers down, then targeted interventions during childhood are absolutely crucial. 

If as a society we needed a stark reminder of the link between drugs and child abuse, a new report published by the Independent Inquiry into child sexual abuse makes the link abundantly clear. 

The majority of exploited children are groomed using alcohol and drugs. Our specialist drug treatment centres are largely populated by people who have experienced some form of trauma in their formative years. Ranging from emotional neglect through to the horror of sexual abuse, or for some, multiple forms of abuse that lead to trauma.

 Little wonder these children as they grow up find solace in drugs that soothe and numb psychological and physical scarring. The research evidence clearly shows how these experiences lead to among other things developing a problematic relationship with alcohol and other drugs.

Not only does this provide a form of control for those doing the grooming, it ensures that their career of drug use has an early start. For some children this will be an introduction to drugs they have never used, and for others their groomers will exploit existing drug use by making supply easy – often at no monetary cost whatsoever, but an implicit expectation that the child will do as they’re told.

Of course, drugs are just one of many components that contribute towards disadvantage for children living in some of the most deprived areas of the country. We are all familiar with the concept of Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE’s, which point to the many factors that foster disadvantages rooted in childhood but which ensure continuing disadvantages in adult life. These include for example having a parent with a mental health problem, as well as intergenerational problems with drug use.

At the same time as this report was released, the Ministry of Justice provided an annual update on children and crime. This showed that cautions or convictions for drug offences are at an all time high with 48,000 offences recorded since data was first collected in 2013/14. You don’t need to dig too deep into this data to discover how inequality plays out in the criminal justice system for young people. 

While charges and cautions for drugs have been falling significantly for young white children the reverse has been happening for children drawn from the Black Asian and ethnic minority groups (BAME). Children of white ethnicity have seen a fall in recorded drug offences of 85% in recent years compared to an almost doubling of the proportion for young black children, rising from 10% ten years ago to making up 18% of all offences now.

Undoubtedly, the disproportionate use of stop-and-search is a factor in this ethnic bias of recorded offences, something we know continues into adulthood, as this research from the drug charity Release makes clear. This points to how, despite those from the BAME community being less likely to use drugs than their white counterparts, they are up to eight times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs. 

Sometimes data can be ambiguous, on this issue it’s as clear as it can be. 

All of this highlights the rude health of inequality in this country. The government continues to peddle the false narrative that the number of children experiencing poverty has fallen under their tenure when, shamefully, the opposite is true. The government has finally published its white paper on ‘levelling up’, unfortunately this makes no mention of drug use by children and so provides no steer or ambition to address this in a strategy designed to tackle inequality. 

Problematic drug use often begins early in life, waiting until this behaviour is established before offering help and support is not only ineffective, it is dangerous and short sighted in the extreme. While many interventions are costly and require significant resources, ideas and attitudes can be changed without much expense. 

Until we all, including politicians, accept that these children are victims rather than criminals we all contribute to the next cohort of children who will develop problems with drugs. Many of whom will go on, tragically, to become merely another statistic, one of the record number of adults dying as a result of drug use. 

Ian Hamilton is a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York. Tweets @ian_hamilton_

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