There is now a new class of drug user: not crazed radicals, not junkies on a slow decline into the gutter, but discerning consumers who decide exactly how much they want to take, when, where and how often
"If a patient tells you how much he drinks a week, double it. When he tells you how often he has sex, halve it." So goes the apocryphal GPs' code. But sex - in most of its forms at least - and alcohol, are legal. How much more difficult to establish a true picture when the pastime under scrutiny is prohibited.

In a survey for the Independent on Sunday, MORI presented a group of people aged between 16 and 54 with a list of drugs - LSD, alcohol, amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, glue, heroin, magic mushrooms, methadone, PCP, Temazepam and cigarettes - and asked them which ones they had heard of or tried, which they would consider acceptable for others to take, and which drugs they were taking currently. It is perhaps not surprising that drug usage emerges as, almost exclusively, a youth activity with a cut-off line of around 35 years old. What is interesting, though, is the emergence of a deep generational schism in the way that drug use is regarded.

Drug experimentation peaks among 20-24 year-olds - 21 per cent have used LSD, 28 per cent speed, 45 per cent cannabis, 12 per cent ecstasy and 15 per cent magic mushrooms. This group appears quite fearless - they've tried out the whole lot except for crack and PCP. Many of them would fall into the category of recreational drug users (RDUs). Not junkies on a slow decline into the gutter, not crazed radicals, but discerning consumers who decide exactly how much they take, when, where and how often.

Along with staying up all night, and listening to loud, repetitive beats, the novelty of taking drugs wanes with age - 25-34 year-olds prefer alcohol above all else: 55 per cent drink now whereas only 1 per cent take LSD, 2 per cent ecstasy and 14 per cent cannabis. In the older age group, the 45-54s are likely to have tried out drugs in the Sixties and stayed well away since. None has tried ecstasy - because it's relatively new. Although 13 per cent have tried cannabis, only 2 per cent have taken LSD, 1 per cent magic mushrooms and nobody has tried cocaine.

The hippy culture may have encouraged experimentation but unlike in the Nineties, certain drugs were seen as decidedly uncool. As Marek Kohn, author of Dope Girls, a book that examines the birth of the British underground drug scene, points out: "It was OK to take drugs that supposedly expanded your consciousness like cannabis and LSD. But stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines were seen as anti-social." Rave culture has eradicated such rules. Few substances are out of bounds or un-hip. Thirty years ago all drugs were perceived as powerful substances that controlled the taker and dominated his or her lifestyle. Now the opposite seems true - and increasingly so.

Among 16-34 year-olds, no drug was perceived as totally unacceptable for others to take. Nine per cent of 16-19 year-olds felt it was fine for people to use crack and another nine per cent approved of heroin. Older respondents were quicker to jump on the moral bandwagon: of the 45-54 year-olds, only 2 per cent felt cocaine and ecstasy were acceptable and 3 per cent approved of magic mushrooms.

Naturally, those who do take drugs are more likely to express liberal attitudes. Fifty seven per cent of 20-24 year-olds (the group most likely to smoke cannabis) are in favour of legislation. Seven in ten of those who have taken Class A drugs disagree that cannabis leads to hard drugs. Fifty nine per cent of people who have never taken drugs believe that the opposite is true.

Yet, for a whole generation of under 35-year-olds, drugs are viewed as non-addictive, treated as a welcome addition, often alternative, to an existing repertoire of legal vices, namely cigarettes and alcohol: whether it's a gram of cocaine for a special occasion or bag of high-grade home- grown savoured at a dinner party in much the same way as a bottle of fine claret.

Recreational drug use, a term that can refer to anything from the odd spliff to a weekly intake of cocaine or ecstasy, is more a state of mind than an actual lifestyle. The very word "recreation" implies choice not habit. This type of drug preference can be indulged daily, monthly or just as a treat at Christmas - the choice is yours.

Unlike drug takers in past decades, RDUs don't identify with one particular sub-culture: in the Sixties mods took purple hearts and Mandrax, in the Seventies punks took speed - they wouldn't touch dope because that was for hippies; in the Eighties cocaine was cool until it was eclipsed by ecstasy. Drugs are more likely to be used mutually - ecstasy taken with speed and at the end of the evening perhaps cannabis and then a Valium.

Now the boundaries have disintegrated, there is no such thing as a "typical" drug-user. Kohn explains: "You could localise it very faithfully in the past. What started to happen in the Eighties is now at a fairly advanced stage - it's much more difficult to predict by somebody's age, job, class or appearance whether or not they take drugs."

For a taste of just how far drugs have permeated society, the University of Bristol has just come up with a pretty clear indicator. Commissioned by Customs and Excise, researchers have analysed bundles of used notes, worth more than pounds 500,000, at the Bank of England. Forty per cent of these bundles revealed traces of cocaine. Some of the notes, researchers believe, had been contaminated by people using them to snort coke while others had been in contact with the dealers themselves. Either way, what better evidence to show where a sizeable amount of the nation's cash is going?

If the facts are even halfway accurate, it is pertinent to ask why a significant percentage of society wishes to escape reality so routinely. One reason could be that, culturally, pleasure is now inextricably linked with instant gratification. As Kohn says: "It's what we know from the rest of consumer capitalism. People want big thrills and they want it now - MTV, virtual reality, bright colours and deep base. It's part and parcel of what they want from wide screen cinema and Dolby sound." People see drugs as entertainment - one of many fun options on offer - not solely as a means of escape from economic circumstances or underlying pain.

But an older generation finds it deeply problematic to treat drugs as one of many different recreational activities available. "Although people are more likely to see drugs as morally neutral but physically hazardous," says Kohn, "they're not yet ready to place them on an equal footing with other pursuits that carry risks, like skiing or rock-climbing."

On the other side of this generational schism, young people are confident about their usage. If current estimates are true and there really are 1,000,000 ecstasy tablets sold weekly, then takers can tell themselves that the health risks are relatively small. "It is quite clear now from the number of young people taking ecstasy, that the high level of publicity surrounding the recent tragedies isn't having an awful lot of effect," says Harry Shapiro of the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency.

The latest case to hit the headlines has been 19-year-old Andreas Bouzis who died after taking a tablet at Club UK, a nightclub in south west London. It is thought he had never taken the drug before. It is also known that he had a weak heart. His circumstances, although tragic, probably won't stop a further million ecstasy tablets being sold this week like any other.

Whether it's a first time ecstasy user at a nightclub or a 13-year-old trying out cannabis with his school mates, availability is a key element. "There is a broad range of substances on offer to a much wider group of people," says Colin Cripps, co-ordinator ot the Youth Awareness Programme, funded by Newnham Drugs Advice Project. "Whereas drugs used to be more of a cottage industry, selling is now much more of an organised crime activity. And the people being targeted get younger and younger. The morality has gone out of a trade that was preciously short on it in any case."

Now it's flourishing as a multi-million pound business, creating an affordable and accessible market. Cripps explains: "There's more stuff around and it's marketed to people of younger ages." But what seems so normal and so real for an up and coming generation is still alien and terrifying to an older one.

As the rift between those who partake and those who don't grows wider, ignorance on both sides continues. As Cripps points out, "The establishment have tried to convince young people that drugs were instantly addictive and it's backfired. A lot of their messages have been seen as a con. We've paid the price for that."

What's your poison?

"All I look forward to is getting f---ed up on E at the weekend. I don't work but most of my friends do and they share their drugs with me. We'll club over a whole weekend, right through to Sunday night. Four Es are my limit - I used to do more but I'm careful now. I get bored during the week - hopefully, one day drugs will be less important."

Eddie, 18, unemployed, Dalston

"I took cocaine for the first time two weeks ago, as a birthday treat. After 10 minutes I could feel the back of my neck tingle and my gums went numb. Then I began to feel euphoric. I liked it more than drink. I think I'll stick to a gram of coke every birthday."

Pete, 26, journalist, London

"I used to smoke grass but now it makes me paranoid. I've tried ecstasy four times - the first two were great, the other two so bad I swore never to take it again. Vodka is much more reliable."

Lisa, 24, fashion assistant, London

"When I was a student I smoked spliffs regularly. When I became a teacher I began to see kids that I taught in nightclubs, and it became too risky. But I still smoke a joint before going into school and two or three in the evening. No other drug relaxes me in the same way."

Simon, 30, teacher, Manchester

"I get through a quarter of grass a week - it makes me feel convivial and sometimes horny. I grow it myself - it's a bit like baking your own bread."

Catherine, 24, psychologist, London

"I used to smoke cannabis daily before I went into the force, then I gave it up, reluctantly. Now I smoke 20 fags a day. Socially acceptable, but a lot more harmful."

Stephen, 33, policeman, Bristol

"I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago and I'm often in great pain. A fellow sufferer introduced me to cannabis. I'd never tried anything stronger than an aspirin so I was sceptical at first. Then I thought, if it helps I'll try it. My son's a student and he gets it for me."

Sheila, 48, housewife, Dorset

"I've never tried illegal drugs. When I first met my husband he smoked three cannabis joints a day. I didn't like the smell and felt excluded by the rituals: buying it, rolling it, talking about the effects. I find people who smoke cannabis limited and dull, and they have the cheek to assume that just because you don't take drugs you're rather square."

Isobel, 32, primary school teacher, Guildford

"When I was 13 I started sniffing glue. It used to be four of us sitting in this disused car park after school. We were really close and always used to have these intense revelations and incredible hallucinations. I gave up at 17, when my parents smelt glue on my breath."

Amanda, 28, sales assistant, London

"I only take magic mushrooms. I could never take any drugs that are artificial - just like I'd never eat meat stuffed with hormones."

Joanne, 30, psychiatrist, Leicester

"I take four grams of cocaine a year. Perhaps I'll give up when I'm 30 - I'd hate to end up like one of those wrinkled coke-hags you see in clubs."

Gena, 24, model, London

"The last E I took was laced with acid and there's no way I want to go through that again. Now I stick to the odd joint at parties and a gram of coke in December - it makes Christmas more bearable."

Angela, 33, PR manager, Brighton

"I used to take a lot of acid in the Seventies. In those days it was the real thing - incredibly powerful stuff. I've even tried this bizarre liquid acid that you put on your eyeballs. Until about four years ago, I'd take anything I could get my hands on - coke, speed, heroin, but acid was always my favourite. Now I'm experimenting with Prozac - I'm not depressed but I want to find out if it can make normal people happier."

Tony, 44, advertising manager, Leeds

"There's no way I'd take ecstasy again after Leah Betts. In fact, the older I get, the more I can't be bothered with drugs at all."

Marianne, 30, nurse, Suffolk