Half of all Britons have tried drugs

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The Independent Online
MOST PEOPLE in England and Wales between 16 and 24 have taken illegal drugs, a Home Office study has revealed.

There is also growing abuse among schoolchildren: half of all 14-year- olds questioned in a separate Home Office study in Northumbria admitted they had tried drugs. And cocaine use among young people is soaring, partly due to a rise in alcohol consumption and the drug's popularity among the rich and famous.

The 1998 British Crime Survey of England and Wales, published yesterday, shows for the first time that most people between 16 and 24 - 52 per cent - have taken drugs at least once. Cocaine consumption has shown the most significant rise of any illegal substance. Among those aged 16 to 29, it rose from 1 per cent to 3 per cent between 1996 and 1998: within the 20 to 24 age group, the proportion rose from 2 to 5 per cent over the same period. The survey questioned 3,000 people in England and Wales aged 16 to 29.

Links with the rich and fam-ous are boosting cocaine's image, helping to fuel its growing popularity, while the consumption of dance drugs such as ecstasy have levelled off, according to Paul Wiles, the director of research, development and statistics at the Home Office. He admitted that high-profile stories linking the drug to celebrities, re- inforcing its association with wealth and success, were "a cause for concern".

The string of famous people who have admitted using the drug includes the former Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon, Tom Parker Bowles, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Damon Albarn.

Falling prices and the ability to mix cocaine-taking with alcohol are also believed to lie behind the rise. The average price in London is about pounds 50 to pounds 60 a gram, which will provide an average user with about two nights of "highs". The drug is available for as little as pounds 40.

London, the South of England and Merseyside were identified as the areas where cocaine was most popular. The main users are the very rich, the very poor, and people living in prosperous city areas that are undergoing a boom. About 15 to 20 people in Britain die each year from cocaine overdoses, but officials played down fears that the country was on the verge of an American-style cocaine epidemic.

The survey results showed that overall levels of drug misuse had remained broadly stable since 1994, and con- sumption of heroin and crack remained "extremely rare". Only 1 per cent of those aged 16 to 29 admitted having tried the substances.

However, these findings contrast with results from the three-year Home Office project among schoolchildren in two areas of the North of England. This showed that 2 per cent of children aged 13 and 14 in Northumbria and 3 per cent of those aged 15 and 16 in West Yorkshire had tried heroin. By the age of 16, 14 per cent of youngsters had been in situations where heroin was available or offered to them.

By the age of 13, 26 per cent of young people had tried at least one illegal drug, the most common of which was cannabis. In Northumbria this rose to 34 per cent, and 51 per cent by the age of 14.

t The 100th drug-related death this year in the Strathclyde region of Scotland was recorded yesterday, after the body of Catherine Devine, 23, of Arden Terrace, Hamilton, was found in a house. Most of the Strathclyde deaths have been among heroin users.