Preteens and Illegal Drugs

The results of research into legal and illegal drug use and drug exposure amongst preteen children, undertaken as part of the Department of Health Drug Misuse Research Initiative, are presented today by Professors Neil McKeganey and James McIntosh of the University of Glasgow's Centre for Drug Misuse Research.

In their report, McKeganey, McIntosh and their team aimed to identify the extent to which 10 to 12 year olds in Glasgow and Newcastle had been exposed to legal and illegal drugs, the extent of such drug use and the individual and contextual factors associated with drug use and drug exposure.

Their findings reveal that overall 30.7% of the 10 to 12 year olds surveyed had been exposed to illegal drugs and 9.2% had been offered illegal drugs. 3.9% of preteens had used illegal drugs in the past and 1.5% had done so within the previous month. Illegal drug use was more common amongst preteens in Glasgow (5.1% past use) than in Newcastle (2.7% past use). In both cities, cannabis was the illegal drug most widely used.

In addition to identifying levels of illegal drug use and exposure, the research team also looked in detail at factors associated with illegal drug use, knowledge and attitudes towards illegal drugs in this age group and their views on drug education.

  • Some of the factors associated with illegal drug use were gender (more boys than girls), age (more amongst 12 year olds), deprivation, having someone in the family who had used drugs, living with parents who exercised low levels of supervision
  • In terms of knowledge and attitudes, the anti-heroin messages of recent years seem to have been well absorbed by this age group. However, when invited to elaborate on their views, the majority revealed a knowledge of individual drugs that was vague, limited and frequently erroneous
  • A high proportion of the children distinguished between cannabis and other illicit drugs with the former commonly being regarded as relatively benign.
  • There were clear preferences in relation to the delivery of drug education. Many expressed a preference for non-directive approaches. In other words, they wanted to be provided with information on which to base informed choices as opposed to a 'just say no' approach.
Professor McKeganey said, "One of the continuing challenges for drug education is to develop materials and approaches which are as relevant both to those young people who do not have any interest in or knowledge about illegal drugs as well as meeting the rather different needs of those pupils who have already started to use illegal drugs."

They identified that individual choice and pressure are both involved in pre-teenage children's decisions to accept the offer of drugs. The belief that drug use is very largely the product of peer pressure acting upon passive and compliant adolescents is almost certainly wrong. More likely is that the acceptance of an offer can be the product of an intricate combination of curiosity, attempts at persuasion and the child's own desire to conform to the group.

Authors of Report
Neil McKeganey, James McIntosh Fiona MacDonald
Centre for Drug Misuse Research, University of Glasgow

Eilish Gilvarry, Paul McHardle, Steve McCarthy
Drug and Alcohol Service, Newcastle

Malcolm Hill, Glasgow Centre for the Child and Society
University of Glasgow

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Executive summaries of the report are available electronically. Please contact the University of Glasgow Press Office on 0141 330 3535, email

Glasgow City Council Press Office 0141 287 0918

First published: 2 September 2003