Almost 11 million people in Britain have taken drugs

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The Independent Online

Almost 11 million Britons have taken illegal drugs, including four million who have experimented with class A substances such as heroin and cocaine.

The regular part played by drugs in many people's lives was disclosed yesterday by research which estimated that 2.1 million used them every month.

There are signs that drug-taking is beginning to level off or fall, including the use of cannabis, which was controversially downgraded last year from a class B to a class C substance.

But it remains at higher levels than seven years ago, when the recently elected Labour government lauched a concerted drive to cut drug addiction.

Over that period, the numbers of those aged 16 to 59 who regularly take hard drugs increased sharply, mainly caused by a large rise in cocaine use between 1998 and 2000.

Figures from the British Crime Survey, which interviewed nearly 50,000 people, showed cannabis was the preferred choice of most drug users, with 9.7 per cent of the population taking it in the last year.

That was a significant fall from 2003-04, when 10.8 per cent reported using it, coinciding with the reclassification of the drug, making possession of small amounts largely a non-arrestable offence.

The next most commonly used drug was cocaine (2 per cent), followed by ecstasy (1.8 per cent), amphetamines (1.4 per cent) and amyl nitrite or poppers (1.2 per cent).

Regular use of the most addictive drugs was much more limited ­ only 0.1 per cent told researchers that they had taken heroin in the last year.

Among under-25-year-olds, cannabis use fell from 24.8 per cent in 2003-04 to 23.5 per cent in the latest figures. The proportion of young people who said they used any kind of drug in the previous year also fell from 27.8 per cent to 26.3 per cent.

But usage rate remained little changed from 1998, when the Government launched its anti-drugs strategy, setting itself the target of cutting the proportion of under-25s using illegal drugs.

The number reporting taking class A drugs barely changed, falling from 8.6 per cent to 8.1 per cent between 1998 and 2004-05, which the Home Office acknowledged was not statistically significant.

A Tory spokesman said: "The surge in the number of people taking class A drugs happened in 1998 - at the same time as Labour launched their clampdown. This survery further backs up the case against Labour that, despite their rhetoric of being 'tough on the causes of crime', their drugs policies have had quite the reverse effect."

* Smuggling by prison staff is believed to be "substantially increasing" the supply of drugs such as heroin and cannabis behind bars. Ninty-seven per cent of prisoners and former prisoners interviewed by the Home Office said drugs were brought in by visitors.

Nearly half of those questioned also said that staff brought drugs into jails, while 73 per cent said that substances arrived by post and 60 per cent said new inmates smuggled them in.