The Observer drugs poll 2008
Nearly a quarter of us have taken marijuana. A third of us know someone with a drug problem. Seven out of ten of us support routine drugs tests for teachers. And more than a quarter of us think drugs should be legalised. This special Observer Drugs Poll 2008 reveals all...
Starting and stopping
Have you ever taken an illegal drug?
27 per cent of UK adults aged 16 or over have taken illegal drugs - amounting to around 13 million people. The younger the adults, the more likely they are to have taken drugs: while 46 per cent of the 16-34 age group have taken drugs at some point in their lives, only 5 per cent of people aged 55 or over have done so.
Men are more likely to have taken drugs than women, but the gap is closing. In 2002, men were more than twice as likely as women to have taken them. Now, 33 per cent of men and 21 per cent of women have taken illegal drugs.
How old were you when you first took an illegal drug?
Among those who have ever taken drugs, the average age for first doing so is 17, with men starting to experiment at a slightly younger age than women (on average 16 as opposed to 18). People are starting to take drugs at a younger and younger age. 18-34-year-olds, on average, first took an illegal drug when they were 15. People aged 45+ first experimented with drugs at 20.
Do you still take durgs, even if occasionally?
Men are likely to first experiment with drugs earlier than women, but among both sexes, those who have taken drugs but no longer do so stop at an average age of 24. So the period of experimentation tends to be short-lived, and perhaps associated with a finite period of people's lives, such as university.
What was the first illegal drug you ever took?
The vast majority (83 per cent) of people who have ever taken illegal drugs began by taking cannabis. Opposition to the legalisation of cannabis is often fuelled by the view that it leads to the consumption of harder drugs.
Although this theory does not hold true for most people, the poll does suggest that for a significant minority, taking marijuana has led to experiencing harder drugs. Of the 83 per cent of drug users who began by taking cannabis, 35 per cent went on to try cocaine, 7 per cent to try heroin and 6 per cent to try crack.
Which of the following best describes why you first took drugs?
Four out of five people say that they first experimented with drugs out of curiosity. Although only 18 per cent of people ascribe their first experience of drug taking to peer pressure, women are more likely to have felt pressured by friends into first taking drugs, or at least they admit to having felt this way.
Criticism is often directed at wayward celebrities for abusing their position as role models by taking drugs. However, such behaviour has little effect on young people in reality: only 2 per cent of people put their first drug-taking experience down to a desire to emulate heroes.
Which of the following drugs hav you taken?
Among all those who have ever dabbled in drugs, cannabis is by far the most popular substance: 22 per cent of the population as a whole has taken marijuana at some point in their lives. The second most popular drug varies according to age and gender. Among women, it is ecstasy (31 per cent), but among men it is cocaine (41 per cent).
When you take drugs are you more likely to be at home/ at a friend's house, or in a pub/ club/ bar environment?
Apart from cannabis, ecstasy is the most widely used drug by the 16-34 age group (45 per cent), and for those aged 35+ it is amphetamines (33 per cent). Perhaps because of the popularity of cannabis among drug takers, most drug use tends to take place at home (65 per cent). However, the proportion taking place in pubs, clubs and bars has increased since 2002 (35 per cent as opposed to 20 per cent).
How much do you spend on the following in an average month?
The average UK adult spends £57.56 per month on alcohol, £21.74 per month on tobacco and £12.17 per month on drugs - these figures include those who do not drink alcohol, smoke or use illegal substances. People in Scotland spend considerably more per month on drugs (£24.52), alcohol (£69.66) and tobacco (£35.52) than people elsewhere in the UK.
Drug users spend £70.77 per month on drugs. Drug users tend to spend more money on other, legal, stimulants: they spend more than twice as much on tobacco (£49.90 per month) and considerably more on alcohol (£93.64 per month) than the population at large.
Law and legistlation
How regularly do you currently take illegal drugs?
The vast majority of drug users are supplied by people they know: only 4 per cent buy from strangers. 70 per cent of people who take drugs on a less-than-monthly basis let their friends buy on their behalf: suggesting that infrequent drug use is often done in the company of other people. People taking drugs more frequently, however, tend to buy from known dealers: 83 per cent of daily users get their drugs this way.
Men are more likely than women to take drugs habitually: 20 per cent of men who currently take drugs do so daily, compared to just 7 per cent of women. It is therefore unsurprising that men spend on average three times more per month on drugs than women.
In general do you believe that the drugs laws in this country are... ?
The poll suggests that the public has generally adopted a tougher stance on drugs law since The Observer last conducted this survey in 2002. Six years ago, 30 per cent of adults believed that UK drug laws were not liberal enough. Now, this proportion has plummeted to 18 per cent. On the other side of the debate, the proportion of people thinking that UK drug laws are too liberal has increased from a quarter to a little under a third (32 per cent). 16-24-year-olds are the most likely to think that there is room for UK law to be more tolerant. However, it doesn't follow that the older a person is, the less supportive they are of a liberalisation of drugs law: in fact, people aged over 65 are as likely as 25-34-year-olds to say that UK drug laws are not liberal enough.
The proportion of people supporting the legalisation or decriminalisation of certain illegal drugs has also dropped over the past six years from 38 per cent to 27 per cent. Of the people who do support a change in the law, most (78 per cent) believe that cannabis should be legalised or decriminalised. Very few people believe that harder drugs should be authorised in any way.
This increased stringency is also borne out in an increased support for drugs testing of key workers. In 2002, 61 per cent of people felt that police officers should undergo regular testing for illegal drugs: this has risen to 85 per cent. In the previous survey 46 per cent of people supported the same policy for teachers; now 68 per cent do. The same trend is apparent for pilots, drivers, and doctors and nurses.
Do you believe that drug addicts who have been arrested for possession (as opposed to dealing) should be given a custodial prison sentence?
Despite a growing belief that UK drugs law is too liberal, people are still keen to differentiate between ordinary users and sellers. 37 per cent believe that drug addicts arrested for possession (as opposed to dealing) should be spared prison sentences. Despite minor fluctuations, there is a broadly consistent level of support for non-custodial sentences among all age groups. Furthermore, 38 per cent of UK adults would support a model akin to that established in Portugal in which it is no longer a crime to possess drugs, but is an offence to supply them. It seems that, despite adopting a less compromising take on UK drugs policy as a whole and the legalisation of specific drugs, people are still willing to be sympathetic towards drug users and addicts. As a further example of this, 44 per cent of UK adults would support a scheme whereby certain illegal drugs would be available on prescription to registered addicts.
What percentage of street crime and burglary do you believe is either directly or indirectly related to drugs?
The volume of crime UK adults attribute to drugs has dropped since 2002. Six years ago, people thought that on average 66 per cent of all street crime and burglary was either directly or indirectly related to drugs. Now, they believe that 56 per cent of crime is drugs-related.
Older people in particular believe that less crime is drugs-related than they did six years ago. In 2002, those aged over 55 attributed 72 per cent of street crime and burglary to drugs: now, they believe that only 55 per cent of crime is drugs-related. Regional variations are also more pronounced than in 2002. People in the southeast now attribute 70 per cent of crime to drugs. In contrast, Londoners believe that only 39 per cent of street crime and burglary is drugs-related - less than any other region in Britain.
A government intent on decriminalising hard drugs would be best advised to utilise the increasing fear of crime among the electorate to sell the idea. 48 per cent of adults believe that levels of street crime and burglary would be reduced if hard drugs were decriminalised. Only 44 per cent of people who still take drugs believe that this would be the case.
Prescription and profit
Do you think that the law should discriminate between those who sell drugs for profit and those who supply drugs (to friends, for example) without making a profit?
The law does not currently discriminate between those who deal drugs for profit and those who supply drugs without making a profit (for example, buying them on behalf of friends). 70 per cent of people support the current law. People in Wales and Scotland are considerably more likely than people living in England to say that the law should differentiate. Those who still take drugs are also more likely to support this view.
Of all those who have ever taken an illegal drug, 11 per cent have ever supplied them for profit and 26 per cent have supplied drugs without making financial gain. In total, 7.6 per cent of UK adults have dealt illegal drugs - amounting to around 3.7 million people. Men are almost three times more likely to have sold drugs for a profit, and almost twice as likely to have dealt them without making any money.
Do you think that your children have ever taken illegal drugs?
46 per cent of adults aged between 16 and 34 have taken drugs at some point in their lives. However, only 13 per cent of parents of children aged between 12 and 35 are certain that their children have taken drugs.
Do you think that your children would ever take illegal drugs in the future?
Parents who have taken drugs themselves are twice as likely to be sure that their children have used them. They are considerably more likely to think that their offspring would take drugs at some point.
In your opinion do you think you have ever had a problem with drugs?
Of those who have ever taken an illegal drug, only 13 per cent of people believe they have had a 'problem' with drugs. Those who continue to take drugs are considerably more likely to feel that they have had a problem than those who have stopped.
While the link between drugs and crime is established, the vast majority of drug users in the UK have never committed a criminal act to fund their purchase of drugs. Only 8 per cent of drug users have ever funded drug purchase through crime.
Interestingly, people who feel that they have had a problem with drugs, or have used crime to fund their habit, are more likely to be opposed to legalisation or decriminalisation. Personal experience of the dangers of drugs could be in part responsible for their stance.
While very few drug users think they have had a 'problem' with drugs themselves, 32 per cent believe they have known someone who has had a serious drug problem.
Have you ever taken any prescription drugs for recreational purposes?
Four per cent of UK adults have ever used prescription drugs for recreational purposes. Although only a tiny minority of people in all areas have ever used prescription drugs for recreational purposes, those living in Scotland and the northwest of England are more likely to have done so than people living elsewhere in the country. People who have taken an illegal drug are more than twice as likely to have also experimented with prescription drugs for recreational purposes (10 per cent).
Steroids are the most popular drug to be used this way (taken by 19 per cent of people who have used prescription drugs for recreational purposes), followed by temazepam (taken by 15 per cent) and Valium (11 per cent).
A little under a fifth of UK adults (19 per cent) have ever suffered side effects or withdrawal symptoms from drugs prescribed by their doctor. However, 33 per cent of people do not feel confident that prescribed drugs have been properly tested for side effects. Faith in the medical profession to test prescription drugs for side effects varies with the age of the respondent: although 74 per cent of people aged between 16 and 34 are confident that prescribed drugs have been properly tested, only 64 per cent of people aged 35 or over are so convinced.
How knowledgable would you say you are about drugs and the issues surrounding drugs?
53 per cent of UK adults believe that they have a reasonable level of knowledge about drugs and the issues surrounding them. Given the relatively recent incorporation of drugs education into the national curriculum it is encouraging, if not surprising, that 72 per cent of 16-24-year-olds consider themselves either very knowledgeable or quite knowledgeable about drugs. People aged over 55 are less than half as likely to feel this way. Interestingly, people who support the decriminalisation or legalisation of certain drugs are much more likely to feel well-informed about drugs than those who take a less liberal stance on drugs legislation.
According to your perception of the health risk of these drugs which would you rank as having the greatest level of risk?
'Hard' drugs are deemed to pose the greatest health risk by the UK population. Heroin is seen as the most dangerous drug by 27 per cent of people and crack by 20 per cent. In 2002, tobacco was seen as the third most dangerous drug after heroin and crack. This is no longer the case: cocaine and ecstasy are now both considered more harmful.
As was the case six years ago, marijuana is perceived to be the least hazardous illegal drug by all age groups - 17 per cent of people believe it to be the least risky drug. However, alcohol is seen as by far the least dangerous to health if legal drugs are included - 47 per cent of people label it as such. Around half this proportion (23 per cent) believe that tobacco is the least harmful drug.
The perceptions are generally in line with government classification. The class A drugs (crack, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy) are perceived to be the most dangerous by UK adults. Amphetamines (class B if not injected) are seen as less dangerous by the UK public than the class As but more dangerous than cannabis. And marijuana (class C) is seen as the least dangerous. The drugs that fall outside of this pattern are obviously alcohol and tobacco.
A sample of 1,008 UK adults aged 16+ were interviewed by ICM Research in October 2008. Participants completed a confidential questionnaire, which was then placed in a sealed envelope. Interviews were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults.
• Poll analysis - Olivia Horsfield, Research & Customer Insight
* Poll analysis - Olivia Horsfield, Research & Customer Insight
* guardian.co.uk, Sunday November 16 2008 00.01 GMT
* The Observer, Sunday November 16 2008
* Article history