Class A drug use among young adults at 16-year high

Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent
Photograph: PA

Class A drug use among young adults is at a 16-year-high, driven by increases in powder cocaine and ecstasy use, official estimates have revealed.

Around 8.7% of adults in England and Wales aged 16 to 24 had taken a class A drug in the last year, equating to around 550,000 young people, the 2018/2019 Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) shows.

This is the highest recording since the 2002/2003 survey and Home Office statisticians said it was a “statistically significant” rise compared with the 2011/2012 survey seven years ago, when a previous decline in class A use reversed and started to climb back up.

Drug use among young adults

The increase in class A drug use among young adults has driven their use among all adults – aged 16 to 59 – to the highest level since records began in 1996 at 3.7% or 1.3 million people.

Powder cocaine use among young adults rose between 2011/2012 and 2018/2019 from 4.1% to 6.2%, while ecstasy use rose among this age group from 3.3% to 4.7%.

Conviction for possession of class A drugs, which include heroin, crack cocaine and crystal meth, is punishable by up to seven years in prison, while those convicted of supply and production convictions can face life.

Niamh Eastwood, director of drugs charity Release, said cocaine production globally was the highest since records began and “street purity of the drug in the UK is at levels we have not witnessed before”.

The reality was that our current drug laws did not deter use, Eastwood said. She added: “Moreover, with cocaine related deaths at a record high, with 637 recorded fatalities in England and Wales, a 170% increase in the last 10 years, we need to urgently reform our drugs laws.

“Ending criminal sanctions for possession of drugs will help save lives and protect young people from the damage of criminalisation.”

A spokesperson for Transform Drugs Policy Foundation said: “Given the government’s narrow focus on reducing use, the rise in young people’s class A drug use since 2102 looks very bad.

“But general stats on use don’t reveal much about problematic or harmful use – which should really be the focus of policymakers.

“This year’s drug death statistics are more revealing and more troubling – with deaths rising at a much faster rate than use since 2012. The government need to acknowledge punitive enforcement has proved expensive and counterproductive, and reorient towards pragmatic health and harm reduction based approaches that have been shown to work.”