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Recreational drug use in the UK
young people drugs
Dame Carol Black's Review of Drugs looks at the latest trends in recreational drug use in the UK and finds recent increases in the use of cannabis and powder cocaine.

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The use of recreational drugs

This is the seventh in a series of posts based on perhaps the most important drug-related report of the current century, Dame Carol Black’s Review of Drugs . Today’s post looks at the section from that report dedicated to the prevalence of recreational drug use.

The report makes it clear that the large majority of people use drugs each year are occasional users. This is particularly the case for drugs associated with the night-time economy such as powder cocaine and ecstasy, over half of users that only use the drug once or twice in the previous year.

Frequent use of cannabis is, of course, more prevalent with 17% of users reporting that they had used the drug at least three days per week.

Drug use is far more prevalent in those aged under 30, peaking in the 20-24 age group for class A and all drugs. The rate of drug use among men is about twice that of women in nearly all age groups.

The Review of Drugs provides detailed information on the use of recreational drugs by age, whether people live in cities or the countryside and by geographical area. The South West and South East had the highest rates of recreational drug use (when measured as the use of any drug in the previous year) while the lowest rates were found in the North East and the West Midlands.


Profile and demographics

The report also breaks down the use of different substances by age, sex, ethnicity, profession and income. You can see the results in the table below although it should be noted that the figures are approximations as they involve combining data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales with other survey data which use different samples and methodologies. Of course, many individuals will use two or more of these drugs, either together or throughout the course of the year.

To summarise:


  • Under 30s account for 61% of all last-year users of recreational drugs. Ecstasy and Nitrous oxide use is particularly prevalent among younger users, while use of powder cocaine and cannabis are more like to persist in the over 30s.
  • Men account for 67% of all last-year drug users, being approximately twice as likely as women to use every main type of drug.
  • For all of the main drug types, recreational drug use is much higher among those who self define as “Mixed” ethnicity, which may be partially linked to higher levels of deprivation among this group.
  • Cannabis use is more prevalent among those with an annual earned income of less than £10,000, while powder cocaine use is most prevalent among those on annual household incomes above £50,000.
  • Overall drug use is highest in the South West and South East of England, and is the lowest in the North East and the West Midlands.
  • Use of ecstasy and Nitrous oxide is higher among students than non-students of the same age. Drug use is considerably higher among those who readily consume alcohol and visit pubs/clubs, even after controlling for age.

Trends in recreational drug use

While drug use is generally lower than or at similar levels as 20 years ago, there have been notable increases in use over the last six years for a number of substances. The increase in use has been particularly apparent among the under 30s and also those of school age.

Key trends include:

  • Between 2016/17 and 2018/19, the number of cannabis users has risen by around 350,000 (a 16% increase). This increase was largely driven by those aged 25 29, who accounted for around 60% of the total increase in users.
  • Between 2013/14 and 2018/19, the number of powder cocaine users has risen by around 200,000 (a 24% increase). Men under the age of 30 are the largest group of powder cocaine users, so they have made the largest contribution to this increase in use. However, use has also increased across most other  demographics, such as those in their 50s or those aged 16-19 and there was a statistically significant increase in the number of women reporting use of the drug. Those in higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations are also driving much of this increase, as they make up a large proportion of powder cocaine users.
  • There is significant overlap between the use of recreational drugs. 36% of those who took a drug last year took more than one drug (although not necessarily at the same time). Ecstasy users reported the highest levels of polydrug use, with just over four in five saying that they had also used cannabis in the year and 7 in 10 also powder cocaine. The lowest overlaps are for cannabis, with a quarter reporting use of cocaine as well and less than 1 in 5 also using ecstasy. This is to be expected given that the estimated number of cannabis users far outweighs that of other drugs. 0.8% of the population used cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis all within the past year. The trends in polydrug use over the last five years have remained broadly flat.

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2 Responses

  1. I do not believe that steroid use is so low,
    it is mainly ‘sports’ people who use it,
    maybe you didnt sample them?

    And how many use viagra and ‘slimming pills’ ?

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