The message on drugs is getting through. But is it the right one?

Ministers are "encouraged" by a drop in Ecstasy use, but ignore the wider picture. <strong>Alice O'K

New Year's Eve is fast approaching and those of a party-going persuasion are already applying themselves to that most taxing of seasonal dilemmas - what to take, how much and where to get it. A weekend in the countryside with some home-grown mushrooms? A couple of Ecstasy pills at a house party? The traditional high-class cocktail of coke and champagne? Or a low-key evening with some weed and a few beers? Today the choice of drugs is as overwhelming as the array of washing powders on the supermarket shelves. Gone are the days when a couple of bottles of bubbly and a rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" were all you needed to mark the occasion. Nowadays you're disappointed if you remember your own name by midnight, let alone the lyrics of a Celtic serenade.

The press release accompanying the 2002-2003 British Crime Survey, issued earlier this month, trumpeted the decrease in Ecstasy use for the first time in ten years. Apparently, the nation's favourite party pill is losing favour among the young, with a mere 5.4 per cent saying they had taken it this year as opposed to 7 per cent in 2002. The survey also showed that overall levels of drug use have remained stable since last year, and that amphetamines and LSD are less popular among young people than they were in 1996. The Home Office minister Caroline Flint welcomed the findings as proof that the government's strategy for tackling illegal drug use is working. "Young people are getting the message that drugs are harmful," she said. "It's encouraging to see signs that our work is having an effect."

Flint sounds as delusional as any acid casualty. Let's have a closer look at those "encouraging" statistics. Ecstasy use may be slightly down on last year, but over the longer term the picture is different. In the past five years, the percentage of Brits using Ecstasy has nearly doubled, from 1.2 per cent to 2.2 per cent. Brits consume two million Ecstasy pills each week, and the price has plummeted from around £15 in the early 1990s to £3 as producers use more sophisticated mass production and distribution methods. Even over the past year, the drop in Ecstasy use has been counterbalanced by the increased take-up of cocaine. The number of users of this drug has tripled since 1996. Use of both crack and cannabis has also risen. Consumption of class A drugs in Britain is as high as it has ever been, and we take more of them than any other country in the European Union. Make no mistake, drug culture is booming.

Drug culture is also increasingly hedonistic, part and parcel of our floundering consumer society. Where for previous generations it was the hippies, the socially marginalised or the politically radical who challenged social norms by experimenting with banned substances, now the affluent, urban elite are the most likely to consume illicit drugs. A great number of politicians, teachers, cultural commentators, middle- and upper-class parents - those who embody "normal" society - have taken, or mixed with those who take, drugs. They are walking, talking evidence of what young people (and surely even government ministers) well know: that it is possible to take drugs and succeed in life.

That's why "the message that drugs are harmful" does so very little to curb consumption. It works only for certain drugs - namely, crack and heroin - which are physically addictive, less compatible with working life, and predominantly associated with socially marginalised groups and unconventional lifestyles.

Rob, a 24-year-old student from London, started taking LSD regularly when he was 14, and soon moved on to Ecstasy, which he took every weekend for two years. He had been curious from a young age and liked rave music in the early 1990s. He was also influenced by his parents. "I heard all my dad's stories about smoking weed and I thought it sounded interesting," he says.

His parents found out about his drug use when one of his friends had a breakdown after taking LSD. "They must have been worried, but they didn't get angry or stop me going out." He has cut down on his Ecstasy use, he says, as his priorities have changed. "I didn't have to make the decision to stop. It just happened naturally as I grew up and wanted to do other things." He is now working for a music technology degree. For Rob, taking drugs didn't represent a rebellion against his parents or the values of mainstream society. "It was just curiosity. The same as going out and getting drunk - you just do it for amusement."

Government policy reflects how drug-taking has become an integral part of our culture. Although the Updated Drug Strategy 2002 document remarks sternly that "all controlled drugs are dangerous and nobody should take them", in practice, the emphasis is on limiting their negative effects on communities and users. Cannabis is due to be downgraded from a class B to a class C drug next month, and the Home Office notes that "reclassification will enhance the credibility of our drug laws as a whole by making clearer the distinction between cannabis and class A drugs." To be effective, it argues, drug classification should reflect not a moral judgement but the harm the drug poses to the individual or society. This non-judgemental approach encourages doctors to prescribe methadone to heroin addicts - or, as one doctor put it, "stupefy people on the NHS in order to reduce the crime rate". It's better, according to this philosophy, to have a stupefied population than a disrupted society.

The emphasis on consequences implies that drug use should be regulated for some and not for others. The government's strategy focuses resources on tackling "the most dangerous drugs, the most damaged communities and the individuals whose lifestyles are most harmful to themselves and others". In other words, if you're middle class and you do drugs in a period of youthful experimentation, go right ahead. If you're poor, or too unstable to keep your habit under control, you should not be allowed to start, as it might make things rather unpleasant for the rest of us.

Steve, 40, a recreational drug user, agrees that the risks of such a habit depend on social status. "The only kids I've seen get really messed up on drugs are from unstable backgrounds, the ones who get into debt or start dealing. If you come from a good background and have a bit of money behind you, you're probably going to come out of it OK." During five years of weekly Ecstasy use, Steve maintained his own business, though he says that there was a point at which he was "close to losing everything". He thinks that drugs are now more accessible to young people than they were when he first started taking them. "I see the kids in my area messing around with drugs and I want to tell them it's not as innocent as they think. Kids now believe they have a God-given right to indulge. For me, taking drugs for the first time was a really big thing - and it had a profound effect on my life."

The God-given right to indulge has not always been the central belief of drug culture. Steve says that when he started taking Ecstasy in the early 1990s, "it was the closest to a religious feeling I've ever had". The Ecstasy-fuelled rave scene was an escape from the "segregated" society of Thatcherite Britain. "You suddenly didn't judge people on what they had or didn't have," he says. "I hung out with people from all kinds of social backgrounds, and you all shared the same ethos. Although it seems a cliche now, I certainly don't regret having that experience."

Such lofty sentiments are common to drug users of all eras. Liz, who took LSD in the 1970s, says she and her friends "really believed we could change the world". Drug users today have no such delusions of grandeur. "We saw it didn't work for them," says Rob. "We're more cynical now; we just want to get high."

Tolerance of drug use is often taken as a sign of progressive and libertarian values. Maybe taking LSD did challenge the status quo in the 1960s; perhaps Ecstasy briefly brought a segregated British youth together. But those days are gone. Our national drug habit is part of a consumer ethic in which good times can be bought just like everything else. And all those nagging doubts, that niggling feeling that life isn't quite as it should be, well, we'll think about that in the morning.