Measuring the drug-taking habits of young people is a difficult exercise, especially given that most are illegal substances and people may be reluctant to reveal their use. The authoritative British Crime Survey (BCS) is one generally accepted measure that is based on interviews. Using police and court statistics is another, but that method does not distinguish between individuals and only measures total numbers.
After several years when admitted drug use was in decline, the 2009 BCS Survey recorded an increased proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds taking illegal substances. This must be disheartening news for all those who hoped that the message about drug use was finally making a difference to attitudes.
Drug use is a national issue, with between one in four and one in five 16 to 24-year-olds admitting to taking at least one illegal substance. The proportion was highest in the South East and the North West and lowest in London and the South West. The low figure for London may come as something of a surprise. But drug taking is often highest among the richest and poorest groups in society, rather than those with middle incomes.
Cannabis, although re-classified as a class B drug from class C, remains the most commonly used of the drugs considered in the BCS. The use of cocaine, a class A drug, is apparently more common than either ecstasy (also classified as class A) or amphetamines (class B).
Of course, these figures tell us nothing about the use of alcohol, the most common legally available addictive substance, whose effects can be witnessed every weekend in high streets across the country. No doubt far more teachers will have had to deal with drunken youngsters both in school and on extracurricular activities than have had to control those under the influence of drugs.
But cutting either prevention or rehabilitation programmes would be a false economy, even in these straightened times.
John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education
Proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds reporting use of drugs 200809