Ecstasy use falls by 20% in a year as raves vanish

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Young people's love affair with ecstasy appears to be on the wane, after new figures disclosed yesterday that the number of people taking the pill has slumped by a fifth in the past year.

Young people's love affair with ecstasy appears to be on the wane, after new figures disclosed yesterday that the number of people taking the pill has slumped by a fifth in the past year.

The demise of all-night raves, the growing popularity of cocaine and the suspicion that E is no longer fashionable have all been given as explanations for the dramatic decline in the popularity of the "dance drug". But despite 72,000 fewer 16- to 24-year-olds taking ecstasy, the overall abuse of class A drugs in England and Wales remains at a record high. More than one million 16- to 59-year-olds are thought to have taken such drugs in the past 12 months, up by 21,000 on the previous year.

While trends among the drug-taking population in England and Wales have hardly changed in the past year, ecstasy is the one area where there has been a significant shift, according to the British Crime Survey, which is considered to be the most reliable questionnaire of its kind.

Figures from the survey of 36,000 householders found that ecstasy use among 16- to 24-year-olds had slipped from 6.8 per cent to 5.4 per cent, or to an estimated 312,000 users from 384,000. In the older age group - up to 59 - the numbers taking E remained about the same. Overall, an estimated 613,000 adults took ecstasy at least once in the 12 months up to April 2003, compared with 680,000 the previous year.

Some drug agencies believe that the apparent decline can be traced to the demise of all-night dances and rave music, where clubbers would take pills to keep them going, while drinking vast quantities of water to stop dehydration. Instead, the dance scene is gradually being replaced by rock music, with guitar bands such as The Strokes and Kings of Leon. Whereas five years ago clubbers would flock to clubs with an in-house DJ, increasing numbers are choosing to see live gigs and other forms of entertainment.

The other big change is thought to be the switch to cocaine. The varied quality of ecstasy has long been a complaint among drug users, as it is often mixed with other substances. In comparison, cocaine is considered to provide a more reliable buzz, it is also easier to come down from and has a reputation as a middle-class and celebrity drug.

In addition it is relatively cheap. The price of cocaine has hardly changed in the past 20 years, with a gram costing about £50, usually providing 12 lines of powder or hits.

The cost of ecstasy has also dropped rapidly since its heyday, when pills cost from £10 to £15 each, to as little as £2.

Overall, the new figures show that the use of cocaine has increased marginally by 20,000 extra users in the past year, to 642,000. But in the younger category of 16- to 24-year-olds it has stayed about the same, with an estimated 270,000 people taking it at least once a year.

Frank Warburton, the acting chief executive of DrugScope, the leading drugs charity, believes it is too early to tell whether the survey marks a major shift in the use of ecstasy. He said: "We had a large number of people trying the drug over the past five to 10 years. With the drop shown this year, we have to question whether that represents a steady decline or a plateauing of people using ecstasy."

Sebastian Saville, the director of the national drugs agency Release, added: "The rise in the use of cocaine within the clubbing set and the change in fashions and trends may account for some of the change, but it is extremely hard to be sure." But one specialist who deals with drug users in northern England questioned the reliability of the survey and suggested that ecstasy use may be switching from clubs to housing estates. Mike Linnell, the spokesman of the charity Lifeline, said: "People still seem to be stuck on the image that clubbers are taking two or three pills at the weekend, but we find that it is a popular estate drug. I recently came across someone who was taking 20 pills a day. The survey may not be picking up on these people."

The data shows that an estimated 3,764,000 people have taken an illegal drug, including cannabis, in the past year, which is up by 36,000. In the younger age group, overall drug use has dropped by 49,000 to an estimated 1,629,000 in the past year.