Not at the top of the Cool List. Amy Winehouse during a break in her trial for assaulting a fan, London, July 2009.

Why drugs are on a downer

In Britain, the number of young people taking drugs has fallen by 30% in the last fifteen years. Is the drop due to declining quality, or tales of celebrity breakdown?

Published on 25 February 2011 at 14:19
Not at the top of the Cool List. Amy Winehouse during a break in her trial for assaulting a fan, London, July 2009.

In March 1961 – 50 years ago next month – the countries of the world, joined in their determination to stamp out drug abuse, came together to sign the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which committed all of them to an outright ban on the production and supply of cocaine, cannabis, opiates and other comparable substances. Ever since, the trend in this country has been strong and unchanging: more people have been taking more drugs more frequently.

It is estimated that the number of young adults in Britain who had tried an illegal drug in the 1960s was fewer than 5%. This reached roughly 10% in the 1970s, and 15-20% in the 1980s. By 1995, nearly half of all young people said they had taken drugs. If you ever wondered how successful the Grange Hill kids' Just Say No campaign of 1986 turned out to be, then you have just read the answer.

Which is why the latest news is so surprising. According to figures released by the NHS in January, based on data from the British Crime Survey, the number of adults in England and Wales who used illicit substances in 2009-10 – 8.6% – was the lowest recorded since the study began in 1996. Among 16-24-year-olds, the picture was the same, with just 20% saying they had taken drugs in the previous year – another record low, and a third lower than the proportion 15 years ago.

Cocaine use is down, speed is down, cannabis is way down (yet again). LSD use is flat, but just one fifth of what it was in 1996. Though heroin use is also stable, fewer young people are currently requesting treatment for addiction to it. Meanwhile, in the largest ever survey of drug use among British clubbers, published in this month's edition of Mixmag, there were found to be large year-on-year falls in the number of people taking cannabis (by five percentage points), ketamine (10), ecstasy (five) and cocaine (20). The British Crime Survey tends to underestimate drug use (because it does not include people who are homeless, in prison, or living in student accommodation), and these falls are not the first, but they do cement a trend that is now too solid to ignore. In this country at least, for reasons that remain mysterious, drugs seem to be going out of fashion.

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This is no small matter – the UN currently values the global drug trade at £198bn, making it the third largest industry on the planet, after oil and arms. Although, as these things do, it has crept up on us. "Something interesting is going on at the moment," says Martin Barnes, chief executive of the charity DrugScope. "We tend to get a lot of reports around drugs focusing on the bad news, and we certainly shouldn't be in the least bit complacent about the evidence of a decline, but for some people it is a surprising trend." Read full article in the Guardian...

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