Overall, drug use in the UK has declined over the last 10 years; however, because of its relatively high prevalence, cannabis has remained a substantial driver of this overall drug trend. Cannabis remains the most commonly used illicit drug, while powder cocaine is the most prevalent stimulant in the UK and the second most prevalent drug overall, with a peak reported in 2007/08. MDMA/ecstasy is the next most commonly reported stimulant. In general, MDMA users are younger than cocaine and amphetamines users.
According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, among 16- to 34-year-old young adults, cannabis use declined between 2006 and 2013, but has since levelled off. Cocaine use decreased between 2008 and 2010 and has been relatively stable since. Having previously declined, the level of reported MDMA use has returned to a level broadly similar to that seen around 10 years ago.
Prevalence of NPS in general population surveys is low in comparison with the main traditional drugs. Mephedrone is the only stimulant NPS to have become established alongside traditional substances among recreational drug users within the general population. However, the prevalence of use of this drug has fallen since the 2010/11 Crime Survey for England and Wales, in which questions were first asked about its use.
Cannabis was the most prevalent drug reported by the school surveys and shows a downward trend (and possible levelling off) that is similar to the trend for the general population. The pattern in school surveys is not unique to cannabis and is seen in other illicit drug use, as well as in alcohol and tobacco use.
London and Bristol participate in the Europe-wide annual wastewater campaigns undertaken by the Sewage Analysis Core Group Europe (SCORE). This study provides data on drug use at a community level, based on the levels of different illicit drugs and their metabolites in sources of wastewater. The level of cocaine metabolites was higher in wastewater samples from London than in samples from Bristol. This is consistent with data from other countries with multiple locations, which indicate higher levels in larger cities. Nevertheless, the results pointed to increases in cocaine use in London and Bristol since the initiation of the study (2011 and 2014, respectively); however, the increasing trend seems to have levelled off for London. Furthermore, higher levels of cocaine metabolites were detected at weekends.
Estimates of last-year drug use among young adults (16-34 years) in England and Wales
NBEstimated last-year prevalence of drug use in 2015.
Studies reporting estimates of high-risk drug use can help to identify the extent of the more entrenched drug use problems, while data on the first-time entrants to specialised drug treatment centres, when considered alongside other indicators, can inform understanding of the nature and trends in high-risk drug use.
Opioids, particularly heroin, remain associated with the highest health and social harm caused by illicit drugs in the UK. There are current concerns about changes in the patterns of drug injection in the UK, in particular the increased injection of amphetamines and the emergence of injection of NPS. While it appears that there had been a decline in the injection of opioids and crack cocaine in England, opioids remain the most commonly injected drug.
Opioids, particularly heroin, remain associated with the highest health and social harm caused by illicit drugs in the UK
Data on the characteristics of those entering treatment in the UK also indicate that opioids (mainly heroin) are the most commonly reported primary substances among those seeking treatment for drug use problems, followed by cannabis. Among first-time treatment clients, cannabis is the most commonly reported substance, followed by cocaine. The long-term trend indicates a steady increase in the age of opioid users seeking treatment. Recent trends in heroin treatment demand indicate that the decreasing trend reported in previous years seems to have been halted.
National estimates of last year prevalence of high-risk opioid use
NBYear of data 2015, or latest available year.
Characteristics and trends of drug users entering specialised drug treatment in the United Kingdom
NBYear of data 2015. Data is for first-time entrants, except for gender which is for all treatment entrants. 2015 data include clients entering treatment in prison settings in England and, therefore, data is not directly comparable with previous years.