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Last Updated: Friday, 7 October 2005, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Gauging the UK's drugs use
graphic of various drugs
It seems that the UK has never taken the 1980's "Just say no" message to heart.

According to the most recent government figures more than a third of people have taken drugs in their lifetime and more than 10% did so in the past year.

Experts say that although the UK's use of the most problematic drugs - heroin and crack cocaine - is comparable to other European countries, the British have a binge mentality when it comes to recreational drugs.

"We also drink more - it's something cultural about being British," says Mike Linnell from Manchester drugs agency Lifeline.

Key trends in UK drug use

Petra Maxwell from drugs information organisation DrugScope agrees there is "something going on culturally".

"It's difficult to say exactly why the UK has such high levels of drug use... but it does seem to be the case that those countries with the longest histories of drug taking also have the highest incidence, and the UK was one of the first European countries to see the emergence of drug misuse."

The fact that drug use is relatively high does not mean it is increasing at an alarming rate - the most recent figures suggest that overall usage is stable.

However, drug taking is not the easiest subject to get solid data on: users of recreational drugs are naturally reticent at admitting their habits and people addicted to hard drugs tend to have chaotic lifestyles meaning they are difficult to count.

"We have very scant evidence about how many people are using drugs," Mr Linnell says.

"We can't even give accurate figures of how many people are in treatment for heroin and rock cocaine, let alone magic mushrooms, cannabis and ecstasy."

Cannabis 'most popular'

Despite these difficulties, the annual British Crime Survey (BCS) is viewed as the primary source for assessing general drug use.

Afghan poppy harvest 2005

Over 20,000 respondents are asked, anonymously, which drugs they have taken in the past month, year or in their lifetime.

The latest survey, 2003/04, suggests that 35.6% of people aged 16-59 in England and Wales have used drugs at some point.

Twelve per cent have used drugs in the past year and 7.5 per cent in the past month.

That equates to 11 million people having used drugs in their lifetime, and just under four million using them in the last year. Cannabis, the survey suggests, remains by far the most popular drug.

In a similar survey in Scotland, 27% said they had used drugs in their lifetime and 9% reported using them in the last year.

Commentators agree that although figures from both surveys are likely to be underestimates, they provide a useful benchmark.


"It does give us a broad snapshot of the major trends," says Petra Maxwell. "However... some of the most problematic drug use may not be captured.

"Also it is slow to respond to emerging drugs of choice, focusing mainly on the large ones. For example, as it doesn't ask about ketamine... although we know this is increasing in popularity."

One recent trend that the BCS has picked up is the rise of cocaine use. Once considered a playboy drug only snorted by the rich and famous, over the past few years it has become much more common.

In the past three years coke has become more available and that means you think it is more acceptable, even normal
Suzanne, 26, London
In 1996 just 0.6% of the population had used cocaine in the past year but this has risen to 2.4% - an estimated three-quarters of a million people, making it the second most popular drug after cannabis.

Even the well-worn Robin Williams quip: "Cocaine is God's way of telling you you're making too much money" no longer rings true - the price has plummeted with a gram now costing as little as £40-50 whereas a few years ago it was £80-100.

"My mates and I always used to get Es for the weekend but now it's coke. People stay in and do it too," says Suzanne, 27, a lettings agent from London.

"At uni, coke was unheard of but in the past three years it has become more available and that means you think it is more acceptable, even normal."

2003/04: 20,727 kg
2002/03: 8,767 kg
2001/02: 6,075 kg
2000/01: 7,420 kg
1999/00: 2,525 kg
Source: HM Revenue & Customs
The rise in cocaine use has concerned health professionals - a 2003 study at St Mary's Hospital in London found that one in three young men who attended A&E with heart pains had cocaine in their system.

And British custom officials have noticed the increased demand too, seizing 20,700 kg of cocaine in 2003/04, more than double the 8,700 kg they found in the previous year.

But according to the BCS, the biggest rise in the drug's use was seen in the late 1990s and the drugs minister Paul Goggins says, while there is no room for complacency, levels appear to have stabilised.

Crack epidemic?

Crack and heroin have relatively few users when compared with cocaine - the BCS puts the estimates at 55,000 for crack and 43,000 for heroin - about 0.2% of the population in England and Wales.

But these figures are almost certainly underestimates as the survey tends not to reach groups which have a high proportion of users of these drugs - including sex workers and homeless people.

Research published in September 2005 suggested that 46,000 people may be using crack in London alone - a much higher number than was previously thought.

The authors said this could be the first signs of the long-predicted crack epidemic that has so far largely failed to materialise in this country.

Drugs agencies across the country are reporting another development - people who were already using crack or heroin have started using both drugs together in the same syringe, a practice known as speedballing.


Crack and heroin are high on the government's list of priorities as their effect on society is disproportionately disruptive, compared with other drug use.

Drug-taking doesn't cause crime in the simple sense that some people claim
Chris Allen, Sheffield Hallam University
The Home Office estimates that three-quarters of crack and heroin addicts steal to fund their habit.

But some warn against drawing a direct correlation between crime and drug use.

"Research tends to show that involvement in crime always preceded the use of hard drugs," says Chris Allen from Sheffield Hallam University's Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research.

"If someone undertakes some shoplifting to buy a wrap of heroin then drugs have caused crime but if you look at it in the longer term and say well that person was involved in crime anyway it complicates it a bit more.

"It doesn't cause crime in the simple sense that some people claim."

Mr Allen also says that heroin addicts are often more able to control their need for the drug than is widely assumed: many have periods of being "Giro junkies" who wait until they receive their benefits payment before buying their fix.

Who is taking drugs?

But while crack and heroin use tends to cause the most concern, perhaps the most striking feature revealed by the BCS figures is how drug use penetrates most parts of society.

Factors identified as being associated with Class A drug use include earning less than £5,000 and earning more than £30,000. There was found to be no difference between Class A use on council estates and non council estate areas.

People who were educated to A Level (but not degree) reported the highest levels of general drug use.

And the top factor associated with drug use? Simply being a young, single, man who goes to the pub three times a week.

The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:

The problem doesn't lie with drugs, it lies with the individual's irresponsibility when taking them. Stimulating social and personal responsibility through good parenting is the only way to diminish drug use.
William Rizk, Dundee, Scotland

Prohibition is the crime: the wasted money, police time, all those people in prison for non-violent drug crime, all the lost money in tax. All the people who have died using non regulated poor quality and therefore more dangerous drugs.
Carey , Brighton

With no border controls, liberal touchy feely 'punishments' this society is doomed to fall much much further into a deepening frothing cesspit of dispair into which we have blinkered acceptance of. As a result crime will continue to get worse and drug use is habitually accepted and all the social deprivation it brings.
Andy, Aberdeen Scotland

The whole Kate Moss thing prompted me to ask in the office just who was doing all this coke - imagine my surprise to find out, well, I'm one of the few not doing drugs on regular and recreational basis. When I mentioned this to my Mum she went misty eyed back to the 60s when pills were popped and everyone was doing it... she said weight loss was easier with speed. Now what kind of message is that? What does history teach us - and seriously, why is drug taking illegal?
Anon, UK

Having never taking drugs myself (I don't even drink), I beleive that all restrictions on drugs should be lifted. People should be allowed to do whatever they want so long as they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions and they are doing no harm to anyone else.
Regina Phalange, Glasgow

Show anyone round any of the UK's mental health institutions and look at the high percentages of people(especially young people) who are there because of links with drugs- it would put anyone off drug use for life. Too many young people think drugs are safe and you have to take a lot for it to have a negative effect. The media and education shouldn't be afraid to show them how severe the consequences can be.
Lucy, Guildford, UK

I'm 28, I go to work everyday, I'm on a 28k a year software job, and I simply use cannabis regularly for fun. I took speed and E at university, it was good fun then too, if a little dangerous. When is all this stupid talk going to stop and something different that works, introduced into this country, I'm representative of the average user, I¿m not a junkie, I just like a little relaxation. I've smoked cannabis resin for 10 yrs now with no obvious effects.
Anonymous, Gloucester

When I was at college studying my A-Levels it wasn't cool to do drugs. My youngest sister is 20 and her friends, especially the boys believe it to be the epitome of cool to take any type of drug. The NME culture has in my opinion changed so much in the last 5 years to the point where a young addict - Pete Doherty was voted man of the year! He should only be celebrated when he's clean.
Anon, Leicester

The article states that Heroin and Crack cocaine are the most "problematic" drugs in the UK. This is clearly inaccurate, as any walk down a high street on a Saturday night will illustrate. Alcohol and Nicotine are the most problematic drugs in the UK. Until all parties are able (or willing) to discuss this issue without resorting to tired cliches and misinformation, no adequate response will be forthcoming.
J, Portsmouth

All drugs should be legal, but their availability controlled. Hard drugs such as heroin would only be available with a prescription. This takes the criminal element out of drugs and also alot of the appeal and excitement.
Dave, Channel Islands, UK

With more disposable incomes and higher standards of living, this habit is spreading its tentacles across urban India as well. It is frightening because of the dependency that it creates in a person followed by the desperation to procure the drug at any cost. Even here, one is hearing pleas for legalisation but I hope that it never happens. Why can't young people go out and play a sport or work out to relax instead of becoming slave to something like drugs?
Melanie Kumar, Bangalore, India

It's intriguing to see what if anything can be done now general drug use has reached such proportions. 1/3rd of the population is an awful lot of voters and any kind of draconian response to drug use (such as the cocaine clampdown promised by the chief of the Met) will be met with resistance at the ballot box. Equally, middle class parents will be less than keen on a clampdown on university students when they realise that it's their children who will be getting criminal records as a result. Despite firm protestations about "the war on drugs" no politician has the stomach to take decisive action because of the harm it will do them come election time. The only drug law that is widely followed is "Don't get caught".
Terry, Brighton, UK

Drugs have been used throughout the ages and it's only in the last hundred years that they have been banned. I think increasing drug use is good, it's about time people stood up to big brother, we are after all just animals and not robots made to work from 9-5 and obey our masters.
Oliver Stieber, Newbury, England

When i first heard about ecstasy at school I had it drummed into me that there was a high possibility of me dying on my first pill. Of course anyone who's taken ecstasy for a length of time knows full well you've more chance of dying in a freak fishing accident than by taking ecstasy. The government needs to rethink its approach on drugs. Teach the REAL facts as opposed to the current nonsense. More lives would be saved and the younger generation would have a better understanding of the do's and dont's.
Graham, Nottm

I believe that all drugs should be made legal and taxed by the government. The money raised could then be used to help educate and rehabilitate people on the after effects of the short lived high. It should be the job of society to educate people on their choices rather than restrict the choices. This would also remove the criminal element who provide the drugs as there would be nothing in it for them.
Mark Buchan, Haywards Heath, England

Only when the British People have gotten a belly full of liberalism and elect politicians willing to restore capital punishment, will any control be gotten over the continuing decline of your culture and the accompanying rise of crime and irresponsibility.
john bartoli, dallas, texas, USA

In response to john bartoli's wonderfully inspired comments about capital punishment, liberalism and the British drug problem; might I suggest that should state sponsored execution help control this country¿s drug problem as successfully as it has controlled his nation's murder rate I would feel quite comfortable backing pretty much any alternative.
Ned, London, UK

Mr Chris Allen from Sheffield University is clearly deluded, I myself was a Heroin addict from the age of 24-27yrs and everything I saw and experienced goes against the grain of what he is telling us. There is no way to control your need for the drug once you become addicted. I was one of the fortunate ones who turned back to his parents and begged them for forgiveness, my parents then went on to pay £1500 to do a home detox programme and a further £300 every 3mths for my medication for a year. We need more support for people who genuinely want to help themselves because it is a long hard road.
Lee Harper, Stoke-on-Trent

The Delphi Oracle has "Nothing too much" written on one of its walls - I suggest this is the approach to take with drugs, be it cannabis or the "life destroying" drug nicotine. I agree that hard drugs are not fully responsible for crime. People from poor and broken homes are more likely to commit crimes of any sort. It shouldn't suprise anyone that the least fortunate in society choose to escape from life, be it with crack or alchohol. The Government should be looking at the poverty gap for the real causes of crime.
Dan, Harrogate

I'm 35, married, two kids. Home owner. Good, well paid job. Beautiful family. My wife & I smoke cannabis (skunk). Not everyday, but certainly every few weeks. Its our payday treat and we both look forward to it. I'm well aware of the potential health risks, but I make that choice. It frustrates me that I have to go a dealer to do this and effectively break the law. I dont break the law in any other sense, I dont even speed! My friend lives in small-town Holland, he and I can go out for a pint and, if we fancy, pop in to the coffee shop for joint too. I've been to gigs there and had a joint instead of queuing at the bar. The Dutch have the right approach to "soft" drugs. And if the UK handled it right, we could too.
anon , Yorkshire

Thank you for your comments, this debate is now closed

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