NEARLY a third of Edinburgh's 16-year-olds have taken drugs within the past year, according to a new study released today.
Edinburgh University research has revealed there are more cannabis-using teenagers in the prosperous neighbourhoods of the city, such as Newington and Trinity, than in poorer areas.
It found that 35 per cent of teenagers from affluent backgrounds, with parents working in non-manual jobs, had used cannabis in the past year, compared to 30 per cent of those whose parents were either in a manual occupation or were unemployed.
The study also found that areas with the highest levels of drug use among 16-year-olds are not always the same as those with the highest concentrations of antisocial behaviour. Drug and youth workers today described the figures as worrying but not surprising.
Researchers created a map of drug-taking activity across the city that shows the average number of times a 16-year-old drug user has used either class A, B or C drugs in the last year. The map shows high instances of drug-taking in some of the city's plushest areas, including Trinity, Newington and the New Town.
Teenagers in these areas have taken drugs an average of up to seven times in a year.
Susan McVie, co-author of the research, revealed that the bulk of drug-taking among 16-year-olds surveyed was for cannabis use.
"The results backed up similar research carried out in England last year that found a link between cannabis use and affluent neighbourhoods," she said.
"The links between drug use and neighbourhoods have not really been explored in depth before. Links between crime and neighbourhoods are well established and often the assumption is that drug issues are lumped in with crime.
"Anecdotally, we have seen that parents in more affluent areas are less concerned about their children using cannabis than, say, alcohol. There is a perceived lower health risk and it is seen to be safer to use than alcohol, which can attract violence.
"In the more traditionally working class areas there is a big drinking culture and there is a tendency for kids not to necessarily do what their parents say, but they might do what they do."
The research is from the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, which has tracked more than 4000 youngsters across the city since 1998.
The latest study, which split the city into 91 distinct neighbourhoods, each of them with an approximate population of 4500 to 5000, also looked at levels of antisocial behaviour among 16-year-olds.
It was found that the areas with the highest levels of drug use are not always the same as those with the highest concentration of delinquency. Researchers think there are different motivations for drug use and antisocial behaviour depending on where you live.
Earlier this year the Evening News revealed that the number of youngsters allegedly caught in possession of illegal drugs had jumped by nearly 40 per cent in only two years.
The figures show the number of children between eight and 15 years old allegedly caught with drugs leapt from 106 in 2004 to 145 this year.
John Arthur, of drug support and advice group Crew 2000, said: "The figures are actually on the low side of what we have found, but it should come as no surprise that drug-taking goes on right across our society.
"Kids at fee-paying schools are just as likely to try cannabis, for example, as kids who go to state schools. Our research has shown that cannabis is preferred just above nicotine among teenagers.
"I think what links the different areas of Edinburgh even more is alcohol misuse, because it is the only universal drug."
The number of juveniles charged with drug dealing actually fell for 2005-6, with 18 youths aged between 12 and 15 caught by police for supplying.
The figures, which were obtained by the Evening News under the Freedom of Information Act, represent a drop of almost two-thirds against the previous year, when 49 school-age dealers were arrested.
City drugs chief Tom Wood, who is chairman of Action on Alcohol and Drugs in Edinburgh, said the research findings were worrying, but not really surprising.
He said: "Traditionally, harder drugs are more prevalent in poorer areas but they still only affect a small amount of people. Use of drugs such as cannabis is more widespread and spans a number of areas and age groups.
"I think what is more disturbing is the number of young people abusing drugs and alcohol as part of their everyday life who carry on with it without being aware of the problems it can cause. This research shows that this can happen to any kid on any street or estate in Edinburgh. That is not being over-dramatic, it is the reality of the situation.
"There is a fallacy that because a teenager lives in a nice neighbourhood that they are somehow sheltered from drugs. At some point in every youngster's life they are likely to be offered drugs."
In March it was revealed that the number of teenagers seeking help for drug problems had fallen to a five-year low in the city - sparking fears that more are abusing alcohol instead.
Dot Horne, director of the youth project Edinburgh City Youth Cafe, said drugs, particularly cannabis, play a big part in a lot of teenagers' lives.
She said: "Cannabis is definitely seen as more acceptable and far more prevalent than it was even just five years ago. We get people from all different backgrounds in to see us and there is definitely an attitude that cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol or other drugs.
"We have seen people go to extremes with cannabis - that is not to say they are addicted to it, but they get into debt to fund their habit and their hash bill comes before any other bills which they have to pay."
A 2005 study which questioned 7000 13 and 15-year-olds in Scotland found that a third of 15-year-olds and 11 per cent of 13-year-olds reported that they had used drugs in the past year.