When drugs start at 14

From left to right, Julio Alberto, Noelia Suárez, Juan José Soriano, Carlos Sánchez, Nuria García, María José Cobo, José Luis Ruiz Espejo, Ana Isabel González and John Kreuze, before the start of the conference.
From left to right, Julio Alberto, Noelia Suárez, Juan José Soriano, Carlos Sánchez, Nuria García, María José Cobo, José Luis Ruiz Espejo, Ana Isabel González and John Kreuze, before the start of the conference. / S. SALAS
  • Cannabis, alcohol, tobacco and cocaine are those most consumed by children. “Some even take cannabis at school break times,” says an addiction specialist

  • Addiction is occurring earlier and the effects of new substances are unknown

The good news is that for the first time since 1994 the National Drugs Plan has detected a stabilisation of the age when youngsters start to consume toxic substances. The bad news is that, on average, that age is as low as 14, and some have even started much earlier, aged 12.

The devastating consequences of addictions on an increasingly young and numerous section of the population have yet to be determined, and the causes and their consequences were discussed recently during the conference on Youth Awareness of Addictions which was organised by the MonteAlminara centre and the Andalusian Youth Institute.

The effects of this consumption from a medical, psychiatric, legal, judicial and social point of view reflect the different aspects of a problem for which prevention policies are badly needed. And this is all in a scenario in which, specialists emphasise, nobody is immune to the possibility of ending up as drug consumers, especially during adolescence, which is often the period when a young person will play down the risk factor because of their interest in trying new things.

“There are even cases of cannabis being consumed at break time in schools,” warned the medical psychiatrist of the Triora MonteAlminara centre, Dr Carlos Sánchez Menéndez, to an audience which included therapists, psychologists, doctors and teachers. He called on these professionals to be constantly on the lookout for the warning signs which may indicate that a teenager has started to consume toxic substances.

The role of parents

Parents also have a key role in this prevention strategy, but they often turn a blind eye to these changes in their child's behaviour or think the fact that he or she goes out at night “and has four beers” is a lesser evil.

In fact, Dr Sánchez said that while 43.7 per cent of parents are tolerant about their children drinking alcohol, their posture changes radically when it comes to drug consumption: “They say that of course they don't want their child to take illegal substances, but they are much more permissive about them drinking four beers,” he explained, and alcohol - in this case beer, wine or even energy drinks - represents a gateway to the consumption of other, equally noxious, substances.

The doctor said that cannabis, alcohol, tobacco and cocaine “are the substances most consumed by these age groups. People refer to addictive “substances” but should also take into account addictive “behaviours”, he stressed, because those also include social media and gambling, and their uncontrolled use is also on the increase.

This is a worrying situation and the specialists at the conference also warned of new drugs, whose direct effects upon the body are unknown. This is such a problem that, as Dr Sánchez admitted, “patients are dying of cardiac arrest and we can't do anything about it”. Among these new substances with unknown consequences are GHB, metaphredone and ketamine, “which are probably the most problematical because we don't know anything about them”.

The abuse of these substances means that doctors are seeing youngsters aged 13 or 14 “who have no idea what is going on around them,”, says this psychiatrist, who specialises in addictions, child-youth psychiatry and neuropsychiatry.

Nevertheless, the illegal substances are not always responsible for medical problems which arise from an addiction. The National Drugs Plan refers to a worrying statistic, that youngsters aged 13.7 years on average are being medicated with hypno-sedatives, with or without medical prescription, to which Dr Sánchez raised a question: “Who is to blame for that? Doctors? Parents? Teachers who have children with problems in their classroom and wash their hands of them, asking the parents to take them to see a specialist?” he asked. It is a fact that an increasing number of children these days can't sleep and show signs of anxiety when treated with this type of pharmaceutical product.

The effects of long-term consumption of this type are unknown; and all these doubts were explained at the conference by the director of the MonteAlminara centre, Nuria García: “We know what the consequences of taking heroin will be on a large part of the population, but in this case we don't know what the consequences will be. The children of today don't have any historic memory of that, they don't even know what they are getting into. They are losing many behavioural skills, and the effects of that will be seen in the future,” she said.

She also raised a question which is unanswerable from the information available: “What will happen to our children in ten years' time?”

However, the psychiatric and clinical effects are not the only ones associated with addictions in adolescence. There are legal and judicial factors involved too, which need a detailed analysis.

This was provided by the Prosecutor for Juveniles at the Malaga Provincial Court, María José Cobo, who explained that there are more and more drugs-related cases involving children nowadays. She insisted that truly effective preventive policies are needed “in this intermediate stage, which is from the time the children start trying drugs until they end up in court”, and she also described the profile of youngsters to whom that applies.

Children in court

Firstly, María José Cobo talked about the children “who we know are already in a risky situation because someone in their family consumes or traffics drugs,” but she pointed out that many also come from “normal families, but try drugs during their adolescence”. She also described a third profile which, she said, worries her: “It is when parents are violent towards their children, which is increasingly a matter of concern... that's where consumption comes into it, mostly of cannabis. It provides a form of relaxation for the children in light of their parents' behaviour and their relationship with their surroundings.”

Another speaker was Julio Alberto Moreno, a former footballer with Barcelona FC, Atlético Madrid and the Spanish team, who has described his rehabilitation from drugs in a book, 'Nunca recordaré haber muerto', and who insisted that addictions do not depend on social class or financial circumstances.

This elite sportsman was highly critical of the decision to stop sport at schools. “It means that only some children play sport, and they have to organise it themselves,” he said. He also talked about the lack of teaching of social skills, because in his opinion this would be a powerful preventive factor.

“Children learn languages and mathematics, but they are not learning the necessary social skills or healthy lifestyle habits,” he said.

Finally, the regional government representative in Malaga, José Luis Ruiz Espejo, stressed the importance of the administrations and society working together “to move forward in tackling this problem and make progress in preventive policies. This is something everybody needs to be involved in,” he said.