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Drug use in England and Wales: is it under control?

By Docta, Jul 27, 2012 | Updated: Jul 27, 2012 | |
  1. Docta
    Today two reports on drug use have been published, one for 11 to 15 year olds and another for 16 to 56 year olds. We investigate both and find some worrying problems. Drug use in England and Wales is, according to today's statistics, under control.

    The NHS information centre deduced in their latest report from a sample of 6,519 school pupils, that about 12% of children in England and Wales are likely to have used drugs in the last year. This measure of drug use was exactly the same as the previous year. Over the past years the drug use in pupils aged 11 up to 15 is estimated like this:

    A very high level regional breakdown of drug use and the sample size in each region is shown in the spreadsheet below.

    Some cheeky measures to ensure the data quality were deployed, for example the survey asks about use of Semeron, a fictional drug, which helps to pick out the pupils who are exaggerating drug use. The small number of respondents who reported use of Semeron were excluded from the analyses. The data is gathered by face-to-face interviews in a sample of schools from each strategic health authority and is followed by a survey the pupils complete - usually on the researchers laptop.

    The survey asked whether pupils would like to give up taking drugs, 41% said yes, then it asked whether pupils ever felt they needed help or treatment for their drug use, only 4% said yes.

    Maybe this is some measure of the stigma attached to seeking help or maybe it is a reflection of addictive behavior. It would be good to explore this but while this survey ticks a box for keeping track of drug use, we have discovered serious concerns about the methodology.

    It is not mandatory for a school to take part in the survey so there is a very real danger of the sample to be skewed towards schools with a good track record managing the drug situation or don't really have a problem at all. We also discovered it is not necessary for the same school to take part year on year.

    Given this potential for a self-selecting sample we are left concerned that the 6,519 pupils are not representative of the 2,857,000 pupils aged 11 to 15 in the state school system in 2011.

    This under-resourcing of such an important survey seems a terrible disservice to children with drug use, smoking or drinking problems that become addictions.

    A separate home office release today found 3.0% of 16 to 59 year olds surveyed had used a Class A drug in the last year. This was similar to the levels in the 2010/11 (3.0%) and 2009/10 (3.1%).

    This chart shows how drug use, and different drugs used, has changed over time for people who claim to have taken drugs in the last year.

    The report states that:

    The long-term trend in Class A drug use shows no statistically significant difference between 1996 (2.7%) and 2011/12 (3.0%); there was a gradual increase overall between 1996 and 2008/09 (from 2.7% to 3.7%) which has been tempered by a decrease between 2008/09 and 2009/10 (3.7% to 3.1%).

    Again the methodology of the survey raises questions. This data is collected as part of the crime survey conducted on households, so of course does not capture any of the drug use amongst the homeless or those undergoing rehabilitation. We found that 26,500 households completed the drug use section of the crime survey.

    Here's what we think is the key data from both drug use surveys published today. Let us know what you think in the comments.

    Download report from Drugs-Forum

    Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England in 2011



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