POLICE in St Ives last week warned how youngsters were using cheap laughing gas as an alternative way to get high. Dr Dickon Bevington told ANDREW PAPWORTH how an underclass of people hooked on illegal substance misuse is growing – and what he and others are trying to do to stop it.

MORE teenagers in Huntingdonshire today are staying drugs free - but for the most vulnerable in our society, the news doesn't seem to be getting better.

According to Dickon Bevington, while the police, schools and health workers have had great success in getting more young people to steer clear of drugs in the first place, those that are tempted risk falling into a deeper spiral of addiction which, once it starts, is harder to stop.

"Although for the greater number it is good news, those who do start using substances tend to do so for longer," said Dr Bevington, a consultant in psychiatry for the Cambridgeshire Child and Adolescent Substance Use Service, based at the Newtown Centre in Nursery Road, Huntingdon.

He calls this group of people an "underclass".

"These are young people who tend to be the most vulnerable and they are getting a much worse deal," he said.

Dr Bevington believes the county is going in "two directions", where fewer people overall are involved in drug use but those that are are noticing greater effects.

The difficulty in reaching those people is that there is not one sole reason why people fall into a drug habit, Dr Bevington said. Instead there are multiple factors which often cause a domino effect.

For example, a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might fall behind at school, become isolated, suffer from low self-esteem and then be drawn towards drug use because of their negative feelings.

"On their own, one of these factors isn't enough to cause drug use but together they cause a problem," Dr Bevington said.

It does not help that the risks today for those most likely to take drugs are much higher.

The biggest battle CASUS and other medical agencies face is against the internet, which allows youngsters to get hold of more substances more easily - with less chance they will get caught.

Dr Bevington calls it a "major source of dealing which is harder to police".

He said: "Young people have a much wider range of substances which are very much more potent now than they used to be.

"New ones are being invented all the time."

It is made all the more harder by the fact that drug use is "not something which young people leap up to come and tell you about".

He added: "When you talk to an adolescent, you find out that they tend to use it with their peers.

"They have the idea that everyone is using drugs at their level, because that is the world they live in."

The dangers of young people falling into what Dr Bevington calls the "cannabis trap" are immense, as teenagers' brains are at a very sensitive period of their development.

"At one time we thought an adolescent brain was basically an adult brain that needed a bit more teaching," he said.

"We thought it was a fully-grown brain that needed more information to be put into it.

"It is only over the last 15 years that we have noticed that the adolescent brain is doing a very major reorganisation."

Dr Bevington likens it to building a national transport system by linking the pathways of the brain.

This makes taking drugs at this time potentially very harmful for a youngster's mental health or cognitive development.

"Ultimately, a young person taking any form of substance is not a good idea," Dr Bevington says.

"Adolescence is a critical period for the brain's development. If you take drugs at this age, you are potentially going to make bad pathways for the future."

FACTBOX

- The number of under 18-year-olds treated for substance misuse in Cambridgeshire (excluding Peterborough) has also gone up by 60 per cent in the past year - but as Dr Bevington says, that is because groups like CASUS are treating more people.

- Dr Bevington says approximately one in five school pupils say they have ever used drugs, which is down significantly from one in three in 2001.

- Fewer young people also say they approve of their peers drinking alcohol once per week. Only 32 per cent of people say it is acceptable, compared to 46 per cent in 2003.

- Cannabis is the most commonly used drug, with volatile substances the next most popular with drug users.

CASE STUDY

This is one drug user's account of the help he received from CASUS substance use practitioner Verity Beehan.

"I was smoking a lot of cannabis. It was really bad. I had no money for clothes or my personal hygiene.

"I started using it to cloud other problems I had. Then it escalated and I needed it to het myself to sleep or to function properly.

"My confidence literally just dropped. It felt like everybody was looking at me, judging me. I didn't really think anybody could help my situation."

"When I was first introduced to CASUS, I thought: 'Who are these people and what are they going to do?'

"I thought I had to be the one to step put and try but I wasn't really in the right place to do that.

"I took to Verity because she was young and the doctors I had previously were quite old. It was like she could relate to what I was feeling.

"A lot of people said it was the cannabis and that if I stopped taking it, I would feel better. However they didn't understand the bigger picture.

"I was just so messed up and I just wasn't functioning or able to maintain good relationships with my parents or partner.

"I was really anxious and didn't feel like I was worth anything. Verity made me feel like I was worth something.

"She really helped me switch my life around. I really can't put it into words. I don't know what I would've done without Verity."