Blog post by Professor Betsy Thom
What happens to young people who use alcohol and drugs and get into trouble with the law? Can prevention and intervention change the course of events, stop drug use escalating and reduce the harms associated with substance use? These questions are at the heart of the current EPPIC research project – Exchanging Prevention practices on Polydrug use among youth In Criminal justice systems. The project is funded by the EU and has partners in the UK (Middlesex and CGL), Italy, Denmark, Poland, Austria and Germany. So far, we have interviewed practitioners working with the young people and we are currently completing 40 interviews in each country with young people between 16-24 years of age.
Practitioners described the young people as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk’; they use mainly cannabis and alcohol but also a wide range of substances – such as, valium, ecstasy, cocaine, Xanax. Many also suffer multiple social and mental health problems; they are ‘complex cases’; they have “very low self-esteem”; they use to cope and they live in environments where substance use is ‘normalised’.Drug use and criminal involvement is frequently common in their families. In the UK, some young people get caught up in drug supply chains – ‘county lines’ – where they report earning good money, gaining ‘respect’ and the opportunity to achieve in an alternative community.
What does ‘prevention’ mean for this group? Many of these young people miss out on the universal prevention programmes delivered in schools. So more targeted approaches are needed and prevention has to be broadly defined.  This includes harm reduction, acknowledging that this target group were already using and trying to prevent more harmful patterns of use. However, there are tensions in most countries, arising from the location of service delivery at the intersection between criminal justice, health, social welfare and educational systems and the need for practitioners to work in partnerships across and within different legal and service contexts. Since drugs are illegal, practitioners report that it is not easy to adopt a harm reduction approach within criminal justice contexts.
Partnership working and taking a holistic approach was also seen as key to helping young people. Interviewees spoke about the importance of addressing the many connected problems affecting these young people rather than concentrating on drug use or criminal involvement alone. Building resilience was frequently mentioned as was the need to engage young people in prevention projects through collaborative work, use of technology and social media approaches.  
Find out more! You can read our reports on the EPPIC website.
Follow us on: and Twitter: @eppic_project


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