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The ‘illegal leisure’ of hidden older adult drug users

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“I mean it's just the same old story as any normal life I would think.” (Ned, 53, unemployed amphetamine user)

We are beginning to understand the role that illegal drug use plays in the life of some older adults. The people that we have interviewed are, for want of a better word, ‘normal’ people who have led conventional lives. They are not otherwise criminal. They have raised families. Amongst their number are university academics, company owners, managers, unemployed people, self-employed people, gardeners, mechanics, care workers and market traders. We have visited inner city council estates, suburban semis, rambling Victorian townhouses and rural market towns. Our participants have sanguine and uncomplicated attitudes towards illegal drug use. They indulge, quite simply, because they enjoy the effects of drugs.

Not only did the rate of drug use amongst adolescents and young adults increase rapidly over the 1990s (although it has since declined slightly from the historic highs of the turn of the century), but drugs also became increasingly ‘normal’ even for those who do not indulge. Drugs are thus becoming normalised in a cultural sense; just as somebody who does not drink alcohol in the United Kingdom cannot but be aware of it and its cultural impact, so drug abstainers will encounter drugs and their influence in the everyday ebbs and flows of their lives.

In Illegal Leisure, best known as the classic statement of the ‘normalisation thesis’, Parker, Aldridge and Measham suggest that the recreational use of [certain] illegal drugs has moved “from the margins towards the centre of youth culture where it joins many other accommodated ‘deviant’ activities such as excessive drinking, casual sexual encounters and daily cigarette smoking” (1998: 152). Earlier this year, Illegal Leisure Revisited (Aldridge, Measham and Williams 2011) brought us up to date with those who first took part in the ‘North West Longitudinal Study’ as 14 year olds in 1991. The authors maintain that illegal drugs and their use are becoming a normal and routine part of the lives of young people in the United Kingdom.

A number of powerful criticisms have been levelled at the normalisation thesis; its methodology, its lack of historical contextualisation, its focus on agency at the expense of structure and its conceptual untidiness have all been criticised. Some claim that it simply exaggerates the extent of drug use and its cultural accommodation. That some of these criticisms are well founded is undeniable, but nevertheless the notion of normalisation has undoubtedly helped to capture the sense that “at least some drug taking, and at least some drug takers, are no longer viewed as exclusively or even typically deviant” (Aldridge, 2008, p.198). Those who formulated the idea have remained steadfastly committed to it, suggesting in Illegal Leisure Revisited that normalisation has become something of a ‘runaway train’ (Aldridge, Measham and Williams 2011: 215).

Searching for older illegal drug users

The normalisation thesis focuses exclusively on the young. No claims about the extent of normalisation amongst those in middle age and beyond are made. On the face of it, this is sensible, as the bulk of older adults are patently not as ‘drug-involved’ as younger generations. Yet we have long held a suspicion that illegal drug use is something indulged in by a fair number of older adults who are not otherwise criminal and who combine their use with work, family and other ‘conventional’ pursuits. Thus, we have sought out those over the age of 40 who are ‘current’ (i.e. past year) users of illegal drugs who are neither in contact with the criminal justice authorities or treatment agencies regarding their use. This is very much a ‘hidden’ population of drug users, but through visiting their homes, meeting their families and discussing their drug use with them, we are beginning to understand the role that illegal drug use plays in the life of some older adults. In what follows we will begin to briefly draw out some of the themes that have emerged in conversation with those we have met thus far, and then look again at the normalisation thesis in light of this.

These days their use tends to occur at home rather than in nightclubs or other more public arenas. They indulge either alone or with a small number of confidants. Moreover, they generally refuse to imbue their drug use with any wider significance. They do not see it as a central plank of their identity or a constituent part of their ‘master status’, and indeed were somewhat bemused by lines of questioning that sough to probe this idea. Instead, their drug use is a simple and routine aid to leisure. Whilst most have used a wide variety of drugs, as they have aged they have tended to settle on a single ‘drug of choice’; this tends to be cannabis, although amphetamines are also popular.

“You have a little small one, it like, it takes the pressure off and it relaxes me. […] I use it [cannabis] simply and solely as a stress relief.” Matt, 52, self-employed cannabis and occasional cocaine user

“Relaxation. I think that’s what it is.” Uri, 47, care worker and cannabis user

Almost all of the participants frequently compare their illegal drug use to the use of tobacco and, to an even greater extent, alcohol:

“There's no difference between me doing what I'm doing and anybody going out and having a drink on a Saturday night.” Ned, 53, unemployed amphetamine user

“Somebody has a glass of wine, you know, when they go out, I might have the odd joint and a line of coke. […] I don’t really see the difference […] I mean a lot of people go out every night and they're drinking loads and loads and loads of alcohol, you know, smoking lots and lots of cigarettes, I might occasionally have a joint and a line of coke. To me it's just the same.” Quinn, 51, market trader, cannabis and occasional cocaine user

Indeed, most consider illegal drugs to be a superior alternative to drink:

“I had a […] couple of joints, […] which is more mellow. It's not like beer, I don’t have to get up and go to the toilet, I don't wake up with a hangover in the morning.” Matt, 52, self-employed cannabis and occasional cocaine user

Over their lives, each one of our participants had experienced peaks and troughs in their use of illegal drugs. Our participants grew up in the 1960's and '70s. Their initiation tended to occur with close school friends, but by their late teens and into their early twenties, many of them identified with movements such as hippie and punk, and their drug use reflected their involvement, however peripheral, in these ‘subcultures’. By their mid- to late twenties, not only did their drug use tend to settle down into something more sustainable over the longer term, but it gradually became increasingly contingent upon other aspects of life. There were increases and decreases in the amount and frequency of use, changes in favoured substances, and even periods of complete cessation, which were all very clearly related to changes in life circumstances:marriage, the birth of children, changes in occupation, moving house.

“So I moved from the farm back into the town and even then, I mean, I was there for two, three years before anything came along and then it was just very casual use more or less. […] The stopping and the starting of it was more or less just to do with the fact that I moved. […] If I was moving into an area that was really really available, then I’d smoke it, if I moved somewhere it wasn’t I didn’t, that was it.” Matt, 52, self-employed cannabis and occasional cocaine user

“I had five years not having it when I got married […] the girl I was marrying didn’t take anything […] I split up from me missus and started again.” Ned, 53, unemployed amphetamine user

“I got married […] and I never really bothered, I mean for a long time. You know when the children were young I never even bothered.” Lenny, 53, mechanic and cannabis user

All our participants had experienced ebbs and flows in their drug use, and all of them related these to changes in their circumstances. However, there was no single unilinear story. As Ollie mused when asked why his illegal drug use had fluctuated so wildly over the years:

“Different time, different place, different people.” Ollie, 52, company owner and cannabis and occasional cocaine user

Towards greater normalisation?

We have found many people over the age of 40 who are current users of illegal drugs. Many refused to be interviewed, concerned about the consequences of potentially being ‘outed’. But those that we have met and spoken to at length have demonstrated quite clearly that the sustainable long-term use of illegal drugs can be incorporated into conventional and otherwise non-criminal lifestyles. These people exist below the radar of the authorities, and continue to use illegal drugs as others use alcohol, tobacco, coffee and so on.

Yet we would make no claim that drug use has become ‘normalised’ amongst older adults. Even a cursory glance at the statistics on drug use suggests as much. The 2008-09 British Crime Survey found that 24.1% of 40-59 year olds have used a drug at some point in their lives. This compares to 34% of all people sampled and 42.9% of 16-24 year olds. However, current use is far less common. In 2008-09, 3.2% of 40-59 year olds had used a drug in the last year and just 1.8% in the last month. Again, these rates of use are far lower than the 22.6% of 16-24 year olds who have used an illegal drug in the last year, and the 13.1% who have used in the last month.

Given these relatively low rates of lifetime trying and current use, it is difficult to claim that normalisation has occurred amongst older adults in the same way as it is claimed to have occurred amongst younger people. This is supported by Aldridge, Measham and Williams’ (2011) observations about the steadily dwindling number of current users in their sample as they approach their 30s. Of course, rates of drug use are not the only measures of normalisation, but they are of great importance. Despite this, a tantalising prospect is nonetheless raised. As the current generation of teenagers and young adults grow older, we can expect to see the process of normalisation in effect repeat itself higher up the age range. As the drug-involved generation of Illegal Leisure move toward middle age, we can expect to see lifetime trying and current use rates begin to climb for the over 40s. Remember, the North West Longitudinal Study’s original 1991 sample was made up of 14 year-olds (Parker, Aldridge and Measham, 1998, p.32). These people will be aged 35 by 2012. As one of our interviewees said:

“I’d be amazed if anybody under 40 hasn’t tried illegal drugs, I mean in the entire country now. There must be very few.   I’m of the sort of generation where everything started to change.” Roger, 44, manager in a small firm and cannabis user

Roger, as the BCS statistics show, is somewhat overstating the case, but nevertheless over the coming years there is clear potential for a sea change in patterns of older adult drug use.

So what?

Illegal Leisure Revisited persuasively argues that the process of normalisation is continuing amongst younger people. Our own work has uncovered a number of older adults for whom illegal drug use is a normal part of a conventional life. Furthermore, we have also suggested that the process of normalisation looks likely to repeat itself higher up the age range as those members of the most drug-involved generation enter middle age. Given all of this, old questions about the legal status of drugs are unlikely to disappear.

Of course, there is a philosophical debate to be had about why the state should prohibit an individual from ingesting into to his or her own body whatever he or she wishes, particularly if this causes no discernable harm to others. But now there is an altogether more prosaic question. Why, when certain drugs are used routinely and sustainably over the long term by large numbers of people, should those drugs be illegal? Laws, and ones with stiff penalties at that, are being habitually broken by large numbers of people to a point where they appear laughably anachronistic. Of course, it would be a little silly to deny that some illegal drugs and some patterns of use can be harmful and damaging, but the same is patently also true of alcohol and tobacco. Our participants prove that careful long-term and sustained use does not necessarily lead to speedy physical and mental deterioration, nor to broader criminal inclinations.

It is difficult to see in whose interests the law is operating here. It can hardly be said to be representing the will of the people or their commonly held notions of the right or the good, for it is large numbers of ‘the people’ themselves who are taking drugs in the first place. More likely is that the continued prohibition of certain drugs is the quintessential example of ‘governing through crime’. Indeed, it has been argued that the increasing prevalence of drug use has been used by the UK government as a justification for increasingly harsh anti-drugs policies (Blackman 2004). But how long can this go on for if the normalisation of illegal drug use continues? It seems to us that the continued prohibition of substances such as cannabis is an example of a sectional censure that is being rendered increasingly untenable as the processes of normalisation become gradually more entrenched.

This absurdity is brought home particularly clearly when one has been in the company of the participants in our study. They are ordinary people, using illegal drugs quietly and privately in order to help them deal with the everyday stresses and strains of life. Their own incredulity at the fact that they are partaking in a criminal act every time they indulge is palpable:

“I don't think it should, I don't [see] any reason whatsoever, I can't understand for the life of me why, why it's illegal. I just don't comprehend that, that bit, if I'm going out and doing something to upset anybody or hurt anybody I could understand it.” Ned, 53, unemployed amphetamine user

“I've never really thought about it as being illegal. […] I just find the whole thing quite juvenile the way this society approaches the whole issue. You know I just find it bizarre, I really do, I really do.” Ollie, 52, company owner and cannabis and occasional cocaine user

A long time ago, Jock Young wrote that that, one way or another, policy makers must “learn to live with psychotropic drug use” (1971: 222). If the arguments in Illegal Leisure Revisited are correct, then it would seem that young people - even abstainers - have been able to do this. As we have discovered, a good number of older adults have too. For whatever reason, it still seems that those in the corridors of power have not.    

If you live in the UK or Canada, are over the age of 40, and have used an illegal substance in the past year, we would like to talk to you for our research. We are especially keen to interview people who are not in contact with criminal justice or treatment agencies. We will treat any correspondence confidentially. You can contact us via our email addresses on Sheffield Hallam University’s web pages, linked to our names below.


Aldridge, J. (2008) ‘Decline but no fall? New millennium trends in young people’s use of illegal and illicit drugs in Britain’, Health Education 108(3): 189-206.

Aldridge, J., Measham, F., and Williams, L. (2011) Illegal Leisure Revisited: Changing Patterns of Alcohol and Drug Use in Adolescents and Young Adults. Hove: Routledge.

Blackman, S. (2004) Chilling Out: The Cultural Politics of Substance Consumption, Youth and Drug Policy. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Parker, H., Aldridge, J., and Measham, F. (1998) Illegal Leisure: The Normalization of Adolescent Recreational Drug Use. London: Routledge.

Young, J. (1971) The Drugtakers: The Social Meaning of Drug Use. London: Paladin.

Jaime Waters and David Moxon, both Senior Lecturers, Dept. of Law, Criminology and Criminal Justice, Sheffield Hallam University. Jaime and David can be contacted through the e-mail addresses on the institutional websites linked to their names.

Aldridge, J., Measham, F., and Williams, L. (2011) Illegal Leisure Revisited: Changing Patterns of Alcohol and Drug Use in Adolescents and Young Adults, Hove: Routledge, can be bought through the CrimeTalk Bookshop in association with Amazon. Support CrimeTalk by buying your books through our Shop.

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