Dance drug ecstasy falls out of favour as young clubbers find new highs
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Friday December 5, 2003
face=Arial color=#0000ff The Guardian
The popularity of ecstasy appears to have peaked and it may now be regarded as "yesterday's dance drug" by Britain's teenagers, according to new official figures. Home Office ministers claimed yesterday that ecstasy use has fallen for the first time and that wider class A drug abuse among young people, including cocaine use, has stabilised after rising in the late 1990s.
Illegal drug use in England and Wales remains among the highest in Europe with around 4 million people - 12% of the population aged between 16 and 59 - having used some kind of illicit substance in the last year. About 1 million people are believed to regularly use a class A drug.
The 21% fall in ecstasy use in the last year among young people has also been accompanied by a steady decline in the use of amphetamines. The drugs charity Drugscope said that during the 1990s amphetamine or speed was the most popular drug among young people attending all-night parties and dance events and was probably the next most commonly used illegal drug after cannabis.
But the new figures from the British Crime Survey, published yesterday, show that the continuing fall in amphetamine use has meant, for first time, that the legal prescription drug amyl nitrate or poppers is now more widely used by 16 to 24- year-olds.
The annual official survey of illicit drug use in England and Wales also shows that the government's announcement that it intends to relax the laws on cannabis has not led, as some predicted, to an increase in its use.
Cannabis remains the most frequently used illegal drug with around 3 million people smoking a joint in the last year.
The survey also appears to show that the highest levels of drug abuse are no longer found among teenagers in the 16- 19 age group.
Instead, it is highest among their brothers and sisters aged 20 to 24, who often use drugs as part of their weekend lifestyle while starting their working lives.
It also explodes the Trainspotting myth that drug abuse is worst in run-down inner city council estates. It shows that drug abuse is highest in affluent urban areas with one in five households, or 22%, said to contain somebody using drugs. This compares with 14% of households on council estates and other low income housing, 12% among new home owners, 10% in the affluent suburbs and rural areas and 9% in affluent family areas.
Caroline Flint, the Home Office drugs minister, said the 21% fall in ecstasy use from 7% to 5.4% among young people together with the overall stabilisation in class A drug abuse were signs that the government's drug strategy was working.
"Young people are getting the message that drugs are harmful and some drugs can, and do, kill. It's encouraging to see signs that our work is having an effect." she said: "After increases in the late 1990s in drug use, the trend overall is now steady and drug use has remained stable since 2001/02."
She said that more than a third of the annual drugs budget - £503m - was being spent on treatment in an effort to target those class A drugs, including cocaine, crack, LSD, ecstasy, heroin and magic mushrooms, that caused society the most harm.
The survey shows that class A regular drug abuse by those aged 16 to 24 has remained fairly consistent, with 8% of the age group having used such drugs at least once in the last year.
The figures confirm a drop in the last seven years in the use of amphetamines and LSD. This was accompanied by a rise in cocaine use between 1996 and 2000 because it was cheaper on the streets. But that seems to have stabilised in the last two years.
These changing patterns of drug abuse mean that after cannabis, amphetamines are no longer the third most popular illicit drug after ecstasy and cocaine. Amphetamine use has fallen from 12% of all 16 to 24-year-olds in 1996 to 3.7% now. A larger proportion of this young age group - 4.3% - now use the legal amyl nitrate, a synthetic hallucinogen which is used to treat angina.
A Home Office spokesman said the fall in the use of ecstasy was significant because it was the first time that it had gone down since becoming a mainstream dance drug 10 years ago.
The Liberal Democrats and Drugscope expressed scepticism about the significance of the figures. Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said it was hardly positive news that there were 312,000 young people who used ecstasy in the last year.
A Drugscope spokeswoman was also cautious about reading too much into one year's BCS figures and said it wanted to wait and see if it became a long-term trend or its use was merely "plateauing".