Young drug and alcohol consumption continues to fall

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Illegal drug use among secondary school pupils remains significantly lower than a decade ago, according to new figures from the government’s Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).

Sixteen per cent of pupils had ever taken drugs, 11 per cent had taken them in the last year and 6 per cent in the last month, says Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England in 2013, figures similar to 2011 and 2012 but ‘considerably lower’ than in 2001. Pupils were more likely to have taken cannabis than any other drug.

Thirty-nine per cent had drunk alcohol at least once, but only 9 per cent in the last week, continuing a downward trend since 2003 when a quarter of pupils had done so. Among those who had drunk in the last week, the amount of units consumed was also lower than in previous years. While more than half of pupils thought it was acceptable for someone their age to try drinking and a third thought it OK to try smoking, only 9 per cent thought it was OK to try cannabis and 2 per cent cocaine. The figures are based on a survey of more than 5,000 pupils in almost 200 schools across England.

According to the 2012/13 Crime Survey for England and Wales, 8.2 per cent of adults had taken an illicit drug (excluding mephedrone) in the last year, a fall from 8.9 per cent in 2011/12. While the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds taking any drug in the last year was almost double the proportion in the 16 to 59 age group – at 16.3 per cent – it was still down on 19.3 per cent in 2011/12. 

Meanwhile, a new Home Office report states that declining heroin and crack use over the last decade – particularly among young people – has gone hand-in-hand with lower rates of acquisitive crime. ‘Studies agree that, in aggregate, heroin/crack users commit a large number of offences; large enough, this paper shows, to be an important driver of overall crime trends,’ says The heroin epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s and its effect on crime trends – then and now.

While the number of heroin users increased substantially during the 1980s and ’90s – and ‘many also used crack as their drug-using career developed’ – the national peak was probably between 1993 and 2000, says the document, while crime also peaked between 1993 and 1995. Previously, the rise and fall in illicit drug use had not been ‘especially prominent’ in the debate about crime levels in the UK, however, ‘perhaps due to a lack of robust data for the whole period’, it adds.

‘Studies disagree about whether it is illicit drug use that causes the criminality,’ says the report. ‘This is because a sizable proportion of heroin/crack users do not resort to theft. And many were offending before taking these drugs. However, evidence suggests that, for at least some users, heroin/crack was the catalyst for offending, and for others it probably accelerated and extended their criminal career. Thus aggregate-level change in numbers of heroin/crack users is likely to affect crime trends.’

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Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England in 2013 at www.hscic.gov.uk

The heroin epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s and its effect on crime trends – then and now, and Drug misuse: findings from the 2012/13 crime survey for England and Wales at www.gov.uk