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Decline but no fall? New millennium trends in young people's use of illegal and illicit drugs in Britain

Judith Aldridge (University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)

Health Education

ISSN: 0965-4283

Article publication date: 18 April 2008




The purpose of this paper is to describe trends since 2000 in young people's use of illegal/illicit drugs in Britain, and to place these into a longer‐term context alongside recent theorising on youthful drug taking. The implications for health educators are to be examined.


A selective narrative review of published data and theory forms the approach.


A steady rise in the prevalence of youthful drug taking in Britain from the 1960s was followed by a sharper rise from 1990 to an all‐time peak in the middle of that decade. Rates have not quite returned to this peak since, and from 2000 onwards have declined steadily, though from a historically high level. By 2006/2007, roughly one in five younger adolescents, and one in four older adolescents and young adults, has taken an illegal/illicit drug in the past year. In spite of changes over the past two decades, youthful drug taking in Britain over this period is characterised by considerable continuity. Gender and socio‐economic differences in drug taking over this period have remained roughly stable, but changes may be under way in relation to differences by ethnic background.

Practical implications

In Britain, levels of youthful drug taking remain at historically relatively high levels, with recent decreases at least in part probably due to a cohort effect of the drug‐involved generation who were teenagers in the 1990s moving into their 30s. Drugs education is not the likely cause of the post‐2000 downward trend. Drug “journeys” and the pursuit of pleasure are important considerations for health educators who aim their messages at the majority of young people whose drug use is not seriously problematic, and who are proactive when they do experience problems.


This paper calls for health educators also to focus on the majority of youthful drug use that is relatively unproblematic for young people. These young people require information as they make adjustments in their behaviour, and their needs may sometimes be ignored in favour of those with problematic drug use.



Aldridge, J. (2008), "Decline but no fall? New millennium trends in young people's use of illegal and illicit drugs in Britain", Health Education, Vol. 108 No. 3, pp. 189-206.



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Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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