During adolescence, a significant percentage of people come into contact with drugs for the first time, mainly with the so-called “soft” drugs: alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. With regard to other substances, in recent years there has been an increase in the use of hypnosedatives among minors, which includes drugs such as benzodiazepines –those with sedative, anxiolytic, hypnotic or amnestic effects, among others–. So it follows from the Survey on drug use in Secondary Education in Spain (1994–2021) of the Ministry of Health.
More than half of young people say they have suffered mental health problems in the last year
In the case of people between the ages of 14 and 17, 10% of those surveyed (for the 2021 study) claimed to have used hypnosedatives (such as benzodiazepines) without a prescription. The prevalence of consumption, which is higher among girls (12.7%) than among boys (7.4%), increases as adolescents grow, reaching a percentage of 12.1% at 17 years of age. The age of onset is also situated at 14.4 years. If we look at the historical series, which includes consumption among 18-year-olds in its sample, this has increased by 1.7 points compared to 2019, going from 8.6% to 10.3%. This is the highest figure in the entire historical series with the exception of 2010, when the percentage among those who claim to have used non-prescription hypnosedatives on some occasion was 10.4%.
“They seek to be calm and relax”
The consumption of non-prescription drugs among adolescents between 12 and 17 years of age has also increased in Eivissa in 2022 compared to 2018, as revealed by the latest study from the Center for the Study and Prevention of Addictive Behaviors (CEPCA), which went from 2.7% to 4.3%. In the case of Eivissa, a more exhaustive analysis cannot be made because the questionnaires, until now, had focused more on alcohol, tobacco and cannabis, the substances most consumed among young minors. “We had been observing the increase in consumption (of non-prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines) by the children who come to the individualized counseling program for some time,” explains Belén Alvite, educator and director of CEPCA, to elDiario.es. “If in other times it seemed that what was fashionable, in terms of stimulation, were designer drugs, now it is different. They seek to be calm and relax”, affirms Alvite.
If in other times it seemed that what was fashionable, in terms of stimulation, were designer drugs, now it is different. They seek to be calm and relax
This assessment is the result, on the one hand, of the analysis through the young people who attend the center’s individual counseling program and, on the other, of a study with a sample of 2,634 students from 18 educational centers in Eivissa, which which represents 31.9% of the total student body on the island. This study shows that, according to the anonymous responses of the students, the consumption of benzodiazepines is being used as a recreational drug.
Micu, former consumer: “It’s easy to access”
Micu, a 22-year-old Vocational Training student in Eivissa, who used it when he was a minor, explained to elDiario.es that “it is a mood-altering substance that produces well-being for that young person with curiosity and is easily accessible – although not at the level tobacco, alcohol or cannabis. There are more young people who take them than is believed”.
The results of the survey reveal, according to Alvite, that the consumption of benzodiazepines occurs mixed with alcohol. “They’re looking for the feeling of sedation that’s left,” she says. But how to get a medicine that is only accessible by prescription? According to the adolescents, in the words of Alvite, they have different ways of accessing them: they take them from their parents or relatives, through friends who receive psychiatric treatment for attention deficit or other medical reasons, or by purchasing them online.
“Coming into contact with a substance is usually motivated by looking for a way to relate to a group, since to have a better relationship it is important to be ‘at the same pace’ or have the same interests,” says Micu, who admits having had problems by the use of benzodiazepines. “At first you think that the change in mood is attractive, but it also happens that with time and uncontrolled consumption, it is usually incompatible for socializing,” she says.
At first you think that the change in mood is attractive, but it also happens that with time and uncontrolled consumption, it is usually incompatible to socialize
— Former benzodiazepine user
“I think part of the use of benzodiazepines has to do with the recreational environment of relaxing. It can be a way of numbing a bit of personal discomfort”, Alvite deepens. The pedagogue, in the absence of more specific studies that delve into the reasons behind its consumption, argues that “there is a consumption of substances that has to do with having a good time and another that in leisure has to do with disconnecting from everything that pressures me”. “I disconnect from the fact that I am not the son or daughter that my parents would like, I disconnect from the fact that I am not doing what they have told me that I should do,” she argues.
Spain leads the consumption of benzodiazepines
Before the pandemic, Spain was already the country in the world that took the most benzodiazepines, which reveals a problem that goes beyond its use among adolescents and young people. “It would be necessary to analyze the consumption of adults to understand what the consumption of our young people is, that is, what are the inheritances of social and emotional patterns. We have a much higher consumption of benzodiazepines than in other countries of the world. This gives us a clue that, perhaps, young people begin to learn from how adults manage”, says Alvite.
However, the drug most consumed by adolescents continues to be -by far- alcohol, followed by tobacco and cannabis. The consumption of these substances among the youngest students has decreased in recent years, a trend that is observed both nationally and in the specific case of Eivissa, where alcohol consumption has decreased by 4%, tobacco use by 8% and cannabis 8.5%.
“The starting substances remain the same: alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. When we did our first study in the year 2000, the first starting substance was tobacco, followed by alcohol very often and finally cannabis. As of 2012, cannabis took precedence over tobacco, because it has a very bad press,” Alvite analyzes.
“Regarding cannabis, there has been very biased information about its therapeutic effects. We have had cases of children who started smoking marijuana and not tobacco, but later ended up with a dual addiction”, because marijuana is usually consumed mixed with tobacco. “Cannabis usually produces a feeling of well-being. That makes it very attractive”, says Micu, who today interacts with young people through sports and physical activity. “There is other leisure more typical of people my age, but it is not my case,” he says.
Consumption of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis falls
These three drugs are, explains Alvite, the gateway to the consumption of other substances, although it does not mean, far from it, that everyone ends up consuming them. “The escalation of consumption does not mean that everyone who starts smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol is going to use cocaine. It means that at the top of the ladder, someone who uses cocaine has previously used the other substances. The ladder turns down, not up. That is why the message from parents of ‘if you start with this you will end with the other’, does not work, ”he clarifies. “Many times they start using certain substances but then they stop consuming or get off the ladder,” he qualifies.
The escalation of consumption does not mean that everyone who starts smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol will use cocaine. It means that up the stairs, someone who uses cocaine, has previously consumed the other substances
It is difficult to establish a comparison between Eivissa and the State as a whole in terms of the average age of onset of use of these substances among minors because the study by the Ministry of Health begins with 14-year-old adolescents, while CEPCA also asks adolescents two years younger. In the case of Eivissa, the average age for starting alcohol consumption is 13.5 years; in the case of tobacco, 13.7 years and in the case of cannabis, 14.4 years.
While cannabis can only be obtained through the clandestine market because its sale is not legalized in Spain, in reference to alcohol and tobacco, more than half state that they purchase it themselves or through other minors, despite the fact that the sale to minors is not permitted by law. In the case of tobacco, 79.2% say they buy it in tobacconists, 76.5% in bars and restaurants and 36.1% in gas stations. If we refer to the purchase of alcohol, 77.3% buy it in supermarkets, 51% in small food stores, 49.6% in bars and nightclubs, 25.1% in wineries and liquor stores and 21 .2% at gas stations.
Among young people between the ages of 12 and 17 who drink alcohol, 26.2% say they have tried it, 25.7% say they drink occasionally and 10.8% do so every or almost every week. 37.3% say they have never drunk. In the same age group, regarding tobacco, 19% have tried it, 6.8% smoke occasionally, 2.1% every or almost every weekend and 4.6% every day or almost every day. The majority, 67.5%, have never tried it. As for cannabis, more than three out of four, 76.7%, state that they have never used it. 12.8% say they have tried it, 5.9% consume it occasionally, 2% every or almost every weekend and 2.8% every day.
The study also focuses on the role of families in terms of the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis by minors. 51.9% of fathers and mothers allow alcohol consumption, according to the student body; 22.8% allow the consumption of tobacco and 22.7% allow the consumption of marijuana or hashish. The percentage of families that know that their sons and daughters consume any of these substances is greater than the degree of permissiveness there is, according to the students. “There is a direct relationship between the consumption of parents and the consumption of their children. If there are older siblings who consume, the incidence is higher. The boys and girls who consume any of these three substances the most have in common a greater consumption of them in their families”, values the pedagogue. In the case of girls, the consumption of the three most widespread drugs is 8% higher than that of boys.