United Kingdom

Drug use

Graphs on this page:

Supporting information:

Key points

  • At 7%, the proportion of young adults using class A drugs is somewhat lower than a decade ago.

Why this indicator was originally chosen

Experimentation with illegal drugs does not appear to vary much between social groups, but addiction and regular use are more likely to develop among young people from lower social classes. 1

The use of illegal drugs by young adults is widespread, with the 2000 British Crime Survey finding that 16% of 16-24 year olds had used them in the last month, 1 in 4 used them in the previous year, and 1 in 2 used them at some time.  The survey found little variation in usage according to socio-economic circumstances, with the exception heroin use, which is more prevalent amongst disadvantaged groups.  The survey found virtually no change in overall consumption levels between 1994 and 2000, although there has been an increase in cocaine usage. 2  In these circumstances, the use of illegal drugs as such does not seem to be a key issue of poverty or social exclusion.

Addiction to opiates, including especially heroin and crack cocaine, is a different matter.  Apart from the serious health consequences that can arise from drug addiction, including the heightened risks of HIV and hepatitis C transmission through the sharing of needles, it is well established that drug addicts are at increased risk of suicide and of developing mental health difficulties. 3  Home Office research also points out the link between opiates and criminal activity. 4.  Finally, death rates from drug abuse have risen in recent years – for the broad age group 15-44, the Office for National Statistics reports that in 1996, men were four times more likely than women to die from this cause, also that rates for women have more than doubled since 1993. 5

Although the use of opiates represents just a tiny fraction of drug use among young adults, of the order of 1%, heroin remains the most frequently reported main drug of misuse for users starting treatment amongst this population group. 6

The chosen indicator is ‘the number of young adults aged 15 – 24 starting drug treatment episodes’.  Whilst there are problems with this indicator, especially the fact that it will in part reflect the availability of agencies to help with the problem, it is the best statistic available for tracking what appear to have been sharply growing numbers of one very vulnerable group.

Definitions and data sources

The graph shows the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds who reported that they had used Class A drugs in the previous twelve months.  The data source is the British Crime Survey (BCS) and the data relates to England and Wales, with the data being obtained via the annualCrime in England and Wales reports published by the Home Office rather than the dataset itself..  Note that there was no BCS survey data for either 1998 or 2000.

Class A drugs comprise cocaine, crack, ecstasy, hallucinogens and opiates.  Amphetamines can be either Class A or Class B depending on their form but, for the purposes of the graph, are excluded from the analysis.

Overall adequacy of the indicator: limited.  It is unclear to what extent trends in self-reported use of Class A drugs successfully captures trends in drug mis-use.

Relevant 2007 Public Service Agreements

Overall aim:  Reduce the harm caused by alcohol and drugs

Lead department

Home Office.

Official national targets


Other indicators of progress

Percentage change in the number of drug users recorded as being in effective treatment.

Rate of hospital admissions per 100,000 for alcohol related harm.

Rate of drug related offending.

Percentage of the public who perceive drug use or dealing to be a problem in their area.

Percentage of the public who perceive drunk and rowdy behaviour to be a problem in their area.

Overall aim:  Increase the number of children and young people on the path to success

Lead department

Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Official national targets

Reduce the proportion of young people not in education, employment or training by 2 percentage points by 2010.

Reduce the under-18 conception rate by 50% by 2010 as part of a broader strategy to improve sexual health.

Other indicators of progress

Young people participating in positive activities.

Young people frequently using drugs, alcohol or volatile substances.

First-time entrants to the Criminal Justice System aged 10-17.

Previous 2004 targets

Increase the participation of problem drug users in drug treatment programmes by 100% by 2008, and increase year on year the proportion of users successfully sustaining or completing treatment programmes.

The numbers

Graph 1

2001/02 9%
2002/03 9%
2003/04 9%
2004/05 8%
2005/06 8%
1. Dennehy, A, Smith, L and Harker, P Not to be ignored, Child Poverty Action Group, 1997, page 73. Cites the findings of Sheehan, M et al, Who Comes for Treatment: Drug Mis-users at Three London Agencies, British Journal of Addiction, 1988, 83, pages 311-20.
2. Ramsay, M., Baker, P., Goulden, C., Sharp, C. and Sondhi, A., and Drug misuse declared in 2000: results from the British Crime Survey, Home Office Research Study 224, Home Office, 2001. See pages 4-7.
3. Kelly, S and Bunting, J Trends in suicide in England and Wales 1982 –1996, ONS Population Trends, 1998.
4. See, for example, Parker, H, and Bottomley T, Crack cocaine and drugs-crime careers, Occasional Paper Series, Home Office, 1996
5. Kelly, S and Bunting, J Trends in suicide in England and Wales 1982 –1996, ONS Population Trends, 1998.
6. Department of Health funded Regional Drug Misuse Database, 1997.