UK Drug Addiction Facts and Statistics

Drug addiction – or substance use disorder – can be defined as a chronic relapsing condition, where the individual carries out compulsive drug seeking and taking despite the negative impact it is having on their life. The disease is extremely powerful, changing the physical and chemical structure of a person’s brain which means they cannot control their drug-taking habits. Commonly, drug addiction leads to drug dependency, where an individual’s body and mind need to keep taking the drug regularly to function and avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Drug Addiction in the UK

Reported drug use in the UK is at its highest prevalence in over ten years. This is one of the highest prevalences of drug misuse in Europe and hugely increases the risk of addiction. The prevalence of illicit drug use of adults between the ages of sixteen to fifty-nine is:

  • 12% in Scotland
  • 4% in England
  • 4% in Wales
  • 9% in Northern Ireland

A Home Office report found that people who live in urban areas (9.8%) are more likely to take drugs than those in rural areas (7.7%) and adults with lower levels of happiness are linked to a higher likelihood of drug taking.

What Are the Most Common Types of Drugs Used in the UK?

A study published on GOV.UK, broke down which demographics are most likely to take drugs. It was found that Black and White British adults were more likely to take illicit drugs than Asian adults for both women and men. It was also found that men were more likely to consume drugs for every ethnicity surveyed than women.

Excluding alcohol, the most commonly taken drugs in the UK are:

  • cannabis
  • cocaine
  • nitrous oxide

Statistics on Individual Drug Use

Statistics on Cannabis Use

Cannabis is the most misused drug in the UK by far, with 7.6% of adults using the substance in 2018/2019. This number is hugely increased in young adults, with 17.3% of people aged sixteen to twenty-four partaking in cannabis use.

Marijuana is an addictive substance and can lead to dependency, resulting in 27,304 people receiving support for cannabis abuse in 2020-2021. Researchers are still not sure of its long-term impact on the human brain, though it is thought that exposure to the substance can increase a person’s risk of anxiety, psychosis, and schizophrenia.

Statistics on Cocaine Use

The second most commonly used drug across the population is cocaine, with 2.9% of adults using it in its powdered form, the highest this number has been since 2008 to 2009. This is a Class A drug, meaning a controlled substance considered by Parliament to be most harmful. In 2018-2019, around 1.3 million adults took Class A drugs, equalling around one in twenty-five people.

Depending on its method of administration, cocaine abuse can result in serious short and long-term negative health impacts. These range from a loss of smell, to a pulmonary haemorrhage, to possible death via overdose.

Statistics on Nitrous Oxide Use

Nitrous oxide – also known as laughing gas, balloons, NOS, and N2O – is a colourless gas that when abused, creates a head high. The Home Office reports this drug to be the third most taken in the UK (2.3%), though is the second most common for young people aged sixteen to twenty-four (8.7%).

Taking this drug can cause damage to the brain as users cut off its proper oxygen supply when inhaling the gas. Abusing nitrous oxide can invoke feelings of dissociation, nausea, weakness in the legs, and long-term impared cognition and memory problems.

What Other Drugs are Commonly Abused in the UK?

Many other drugs are taken in the UK, all with the potential for addiction and abuse. The most common include:

Statistics on Substance Misuse Treatment

According to government statistics, 275,896 adults contacted drugs and alcohol services to seek help with their addiction between April 2020 and March 2021. This is a slight increase in numbers from the previous year at 270,705. The number of adults entering treatment during 2020 to 2021 remained similar to the previous year, with more than two-thirds of these individuals being men (68%).

Continuing the trend in treatment statistics over the past few years, there has been an increase in older age groups seeking treatment. In the 2020 to 2021 report, 56% of people were over forty. The year before this number was at 55% and the year before that 51%. Though, the median age range for people undergoing treatment for opioids was forty-two and thirty for non-opioids.

Hospitalisation for Drug Misuse

A 2020 NHS report covering the population of England and Wales showed a decline in hospital admissions for drug-related behavioural and mental disorders, dropping 5% from the year before. The recent report also showed that gender increases the chance of being admitted for these neurological drug-related disorders, with 73% of hospital admissions being male.

Between 2019-2020, 16,994 people were admitted to hospital due to poisoning by drug misuse which is a 6% decrease from the year before. In this case, a similar proportion of women and men were treated for drug poisoning. Middlesbrough had the highest rates for poisoning by drug misuse at a rate of 106 per 100,000 of its population.

Treatment Trends

GOV.UK found the number of people entering treatment overall has remained relatively stable across the UK since 2013. Excluding alcohol, the rates of admission per drug category have seen some changes in the last year. The number of people entering treatment during 2020-2021 for:

  • opioids remained relatively stable compared to the previous year
  • crack cocaine has fallen and is at its lowest since 2016 to 2017
  • powdered cocaine has decreased by 10% in the past year
  • cannabis has increased by 5% from the year before
  • benzodiazepine has risen by 6% compared to 2019-2020
  • ketamine has increased by 27% compared to last year, part of the seven year growing misuse of the substance

Get immediate confidential help now