Research shows illicit drug use in young people more common than official statistics suggest

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By Lilli Waples, Psychology MScR

According to new research, official government statistics may be significantly underestimating illicit drug use among young people in the UK.

Official estimates of illicit drug use in the UK come from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW). These findings are used to inform drug policy and treatment programmes, however, there have long been concerns that the CSEW does not provide an accurate picture of illicit drug use in the UK.

It is believed that respondents to the survey may be reluctant to provide honest information about their drug use due to fear of the information they provide being traced back to them.

Findings suggested that the CSEW underestimates illicit drug use by young people by 22 per cent

To address these issues, a team of researchers from the University of Bristol, University College London, and Public Health England have compared data on illicit drug use from the CSEW to data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).

Their findings suggested that the CSEW underestimates illicit drug use. Estimates of lifetime illicit drug use among young people were 22 per cent lower in the Crime Survey than in the Avon study (40.6 per cent compared to 62.8 per cent), while estimates of past-year illicit drug use were also lower by 20 per cent (16.4 per cent compared to 36.7 per cent).

Commenting on the findings, lead author Hannah Charles said: ‘This suggests we do not fully understand the drug use within this population, and therefore it is unlikely that current drug policies and interventions are adequately reflecting the extent of drug use in the population.

‘We do not fully understand drug use by young people and therefore it is unlikely that current drug policies and interventions are adequately reflecting the extent of drug use

‘This could mean we need to do more to support young people who are taking illicit substances in order to prevent the negative health and social outcomes that are often associated with this behaviour.’

Charles emphasises that: ‘We need to understand drug use particularly amongst young people, as this is the life stage in which lots of negative outcomes associated with drug use are seen.

‘If we do not fully understand the problem, then we are less equipped to intervene and support those who need it.’

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The researchers speculate that participants in the ALSPAC cohort may be more inclined to answer honestly since the Avon study is a birth cohort – meaning participants have been engaging in the research since they were born – and has allowed researchers to gain their trust.

Going forward, the researchers suggest that studies like ALSPAC could be used to validate official estimates of illicit drug use in the UK. However, since the study based on a cohort of people from the South-West of England, it would be necessary to conduct further research with other birth cohorts from different geographical regions to gain a complete understanding.

Featured Image: Pixabay / Jeff W


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