Evidence has demonstrated immediate and long term risks to young people’s health and wellbeing associated with the use of legal and illegal drugs. These risks vary with the type of drug taken.
Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (2006): Pathways to problems.
There are particular concerns about the relationship between drug use and mental health problems among young people. For example, there is evidence to suggest that young people who use recreational drugs run the risk of damage to mental health including suicide, depression, psychotic symptoms and disruptive behaviour disorders1,2. Addressing the use of drugs, particularly amongst young people, has long been a focus of government policy due to the awareness and concern over the harms described above.
This part covers the prevalence of drug use, factors associated with drug use in the last year, and the availability and awareness of drugs.
The questionnaire covered the following drugs or types of drugs: amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, heroin, ketamine, LSD, magic mushrooms, mephedrone, methadone, poppers (e.g. amyl nitrite), tranquillisers, volatile substances such as gas, glue, aerosols and other solvents, new psychoactive substances (NPS), nitrous oxide and ‘other’ drugs (not obtained from a doctor or chemist).
Increase in drug prevalence since 2016
The following changes/issues have affected this part of the report, specifically drug prevalence measures relating to: ever taken drugs, taken drugs in the last year and taken drugs in the last month (tables 8.1 to 8.8):
- NPS (previously known as legal highs), and nitrous oxide (laughing gas) were added to the list of drugs included for overall drug prevalence measures in 2016. Both are covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 which restricts the production, and sale and supply of such substances. When psychoactive substances are removed from the 2016 measure, the overall drug prevalence figure (table 8.6c) falls by 3 percentage points (24.3% to 21.3%). This adjusted version is shown in the time series data in tables 8.6 to 8.8.
- In 2016, even when accounting for the addition of NPS to the measures, there was a large and unexpected rise in overall drug use prevalence; 14.6% in 2014, to 24.3% in 2016 and 23.7% 2018. Further investigations identified that some of this change was driven by an increased likelihood of pupils not answering questions on whether they had tried individual drugs. Neither the reason for this, nor exactly how much of the change in prevalence this accounts for is clear, though some level of genuine increase is evident.
All drug prevalence measures presented in this report are directly comparable between 2016 and 2018. However, for the reasons outlined above, it is not recommended that direct comparisons are made with drug prevalence data prior to 2016. See the Data Quality Statement (Coherence and Comparability) for further details.
1. British Medical Association, Board of Science and Education, London (2003): Adolescent Health,
2. Patton G et al (2002): Cannabis use and mental health in young people: cohort study.