The use of illegal drugs is still widespread, with nearly half of all people aged 16 to 29 saying they had ever taken an illegal substance, and 15 per cent having done so in the past month. But while there is evidence to suggest that young people in the south have stopped using so many designer dance drugs, their contemporaries in the north of England and the Midlands are increasingly turning to speed, LSD and ecstasy.
Experts believe that a boom in the North and Midlands in alcohol and tobacco use, which are strongly linked to drug taking, may explain the rise in popularity, combined with a drop in the number of raves held in the South.
However, the surprising finding of the Home Office's British Crime Survey of England and Wales, in which 11,000 people were questioned in 1996, is that drug consumption appears to have almost stopped rising, although this may be a statistical blip. The proportion of people aged 16 to 29 who had taken drugs in the survey year rose only by 1 per cent in the past two years to 24 per cent.
The most significant shift is in the difference between regions. Among 16-to 19-year-olds - who are the highest consumers of illegal substances - the percentage who took any drugs in 1996 rose by 4 per cent to 35 per cent in the North and by 6 per cent to 30 per cent in the Midlands.
Meanwhile, there have been big drops in drug taking among the same age group in the South and Wales. In London, it declined by 16 per cent to 29 per cent; in the South it was down 7 per cent to 32 per cent. In Wales it was down 18 per cent to 19 and East Anglia saw a 13 per cent drop to 28 per cent.
However, when the bigger age group of 16- to 29-year-olds is considered London is still the top drug-taking centre, followed closely by the North.
Overall, cannabis is the most commonly used drug, with 21 per cent of 16- to 29 year-olds having used it within the last year. Next come amphetamines, LSD, magic mushrooms, ecstasy and poppers, which together were taken by 11 per cent of young people. Ecstasy is the least popular of these five hallucinogenic drugs - only 9 per cent of this age group had ever taken it. Only 1 per cent had ever taken heroin.
The survey found that those most likely to take illegal drugs were aged 16-29, heavy drinkers and smokers, male, unemployed, and tended to go out a lot in the evenings.
The Home Office said that the statistics challenged the belief that drug abuse was escalating out of all control.Reuse content