Special report: drugs in Britain
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Saturday September 22, 2001
More than 3m people spend a total of over £6.6bn a year on illegal drugs, according to the first official estimate of the size of the British drugs market.
The Home Office figures show that cannabis smokers spend an average of £498 a year on their drugs, ecstasy users £681, and that it costs £15,000 a year to feed a weekly heroin habit.
The overall value of the British illegal drugs market is not far from the £8bn a year spent on cigarettes and other tobacco products, compared with the £20bn spent annually on alcohol. As a “recreational industry” its annual sales are worth more than the £5.3bn annual retail turnover of the decorating and DIY market.
New data from the British Crime Survey (BCS), also published yesterday, suggests that the government’s anti-drug strategy has had little impact on drug abuse among teenagers in England and Wales.
The government wants to reduce use of class A drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, among the under-25s by 25% by 2005. But the BCS figures, the official yardstick, show that since the strategy was introduced in 1998 use of the most serious drugs has remained broadly stable.
Some decline in the use of LSD, poppers and amphetamines has been matched by a rise in cocaine abuse among 16- to 19-year-olds, with 5% of teenagers admitting they had used cocaine in the past year.
The data also shows drug use to be more widespread among young white people (52% of whom have tried drugs), than among young black people (37%), or youths of Indian (25%), Pakistani or Bangladeshi (13%) descent.
Although the pattern of abuse has been relatively stable since 1998, the Home Office data shows a decline in drug abuse among teenagers over the longer term. In 1994, 34% of 16- to 19-year-olds said they had used an illicit drug in the previous 12 months. In 2000, that figure had fallen to 27%.
But the BCS survey confirms that half of all young people aged 16 to 24 have tried drugs at some point, compared with one in 10 of the population generally. Some 18% said they had used an illegal drug, mostly cannabis, in the past month.
The Home Office director of statistics and research, Paul Wiles, said the official estimate of £6.6bn a year for the size of the drugs market was a “first attempt” to construct a new indicator of the scale of the drug problem in Britain based on street prices, and that it would need further work.
The figures are based on samples of regular users who had been arrested and tested for drugs. More than 65% tested positive for one or more illegal drugs.
The official figures suggest that there are 3.1m occasional smokers of cannabis in Britain and 270,000 regular heroin users. More than 430,000 people are estimated to be occasional users of ecstasy.
The results of the drug testing of people arrested, also published yesterday, reveal 29% tested positive for heroin or cocaine, including crack. These hard drug users had been involved in an average of 432 thefts and burglaries in the previous year. This is nearly 10 times higher than the average of 46 offences reported by arrested criminals who were not drug users.
Bob Ainsworth, the Home Office minister responsible for drugs, said the research meant the government was in a better position to monitor the progress of its strategy.