Drug trends in young people: what does it suggest about their changing lifestyles?

by Oliver Callaghan

Drug trends have changed significantly among young people in the UK over the last few years. However, if you were to judge young people’s relationships with drugs through the lens of recent news and government press releases you would assume that they are caught up in turmoil as they’ve always apparently been. Disposable vape bans, nitrous oxide crackdowns, and endless police busts would seem to indicate that substance abuse is rampant among young people. But what does the data suggest?

Here is a short overview on how drug trends have changed among young people, and what this suggests about their values and choices in contemporary Britain.


Firstly, it is important to highlight that this data is built up of small samples which rely on self-reporting the use of these substances. Furthermore, the methodologies of these studies have changed over time. As such, statistical bodies like the Office for National Statistics (ONS) often advise against making direct comparisons between their surveys. 

However, the data from the Health Survey and CSEW (Crime Survey for England and Wales) is some of the best data on drug use that we have. Therefore, this data can provide some scope into the changing drug habits of young people. 

Drug Trends for E-Cigarettes

E-cigarette use among young people is a highly controversial topic which has seen discourse between those who are vehemently opposed to their addictive quality and use among young people, to those who see them as a viable, safer option to smoking. 

The government recently decided to ban the sale of disposable vapes, stating that they were “too easy” for children to illegally obtain, combined with widespread complaints about littering and environmental concerns about their single use properties. The government took a hardline stance on this issue without significant grounds for assessing the impact this would have on harm reduction.

Data from the 2021 Health Survey for England suggests that around 7% of 16-24 year olds currently use e-cigarettes, with around 22% reporting that they had tried them in the past. This means that 72% of those asked had never used e-cigarettes whatsoever. Around 10% of 16-24 year olds surveyed were currently smoking cigarettes. 

When this is compared to data from the 2014 Health Survey, just over twice as many participants (21%) aged 16-24 said they were currently smoking cigarettes. This data gives the impression that young people have transitioned to e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking, and that the rates of smoking among 16-24 year olds are steadily decreasing over time.

Obviously no cigarette use at all is better than e-cigarette use – and the environmental concerns around their disposable nature are valid. However, I would argue that a transition to a healthier form of nicotine consumption among a smaller cohort of young people is significant, and demonstrates that young people have more of an awareness about their health than most may believe.

Drug Trends for Nitrous Oxide

News around the resurgence of the use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) canisters is another topic which has generated attention recently. The recent government possession ban has galvanised many into camps that either supported this decision or are disappointed with the ramifications this policy change could have on harm reduction. 

A recent report by the NPIS (National Poisons Information Service) detailed the concerns around a 176% increase in the number of TOXBASE (a national database providing information about poisoning to medical professionals) accesses regarding nitrous oxide use over the past year. 

While this statistic is significant, suggesting an increase in hospitalisations or emergency calls resulting from nitrous oxide, only 86 accesses were made by medical professionals regarding nitrous oxide in total. For reference, overall TOXBASE user accesses were up 56.7% among emergency departments, and app accesses for ambulance crews also increased by 57.5%. Therefore, wider access to the TOXBASE database could partly account for this increase in enquiries.

Usage from the 2023 CSEW among young people suggests around 4.2% of 16-24 year olds sampled had used nitrous oxide in the last year. This compares to rates of 8.7% in 2019/20, and rates of 9% during 2016/17, suggesting that rates of nitrous oxide use could be decreasing overall. However, the Office for National Statistics stated that the data from 2023 was smaller than previous datasets, making it less generalisable.

It is essential to not get swept up into moral panics concerning the ebb and flow of substance misuse, as these panics tend to be circular in nature. For instance, concerns around nitrous oxide use spiked in 2014 during the midst of the “legal highs” phenomenon in the UK. During this time, concerns around the tripling of usage concerning NPS (New Psychoactive Substances) in pubs and clubs similarly lead to widespread bans on these substances in the Psychoactive Substances Act of 2016. This ban ultimately did not reduce the use of nitrous oxide, and likely only pushed this activity underground, a move which could have reduced access to information about its effects with users due to stigmatisation.

Drug Trends for Cannabis

Cannabis use in the UK peaked in 1997, with the CSEW recording 28.2% of young people’s cannabis use in the last year. Since then, cannabis use has routinely fallen, with rates of 15.4% from 2023 CSEW data. There are likely a multitude of reasons for this, but some explanations could include the lack of expendable income among young people, health concerns around smoking, as well as potential repercussions from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

An article published by Dazed provided some great qualitative accounts from people who have chosen to quit or reduce cannabis use. One topic which is referenced in this article is the concern of dependency relating to cannabis consumption.

While this does not account for all users, cannabis dependency is a real concern that many users can relate to, with some who originally used cannabis to ease stress often finding themselves caught habitually consuming cannabis more than they would like. Mindfulness around this topic is a promising trend, as it suggests that young people are seeking more control and awareness of the impact of substances on their health and wellbeing.

Another factor which could be influencing the reduction in consumption could be social or cultural influence. Since 1997, we have seen many countries such as the US and Canada legalise cannabis and work towards implementing consumer first markets based on regulation and transparency. While in the UK, only medicinal cannabis has been permitted. 

The division between the medicinal and illicit cannabis markets in the UK could play some role in explaining the reduction in illicit consumption of cannabis since 2019. Relying on illicit forms of distribution across the board, does not appeal to a lot of Brits, who would often rather go for a pint in a pub than obtain cannabis illicitly. You can find more of our coverage on the cultural apprehension towards cannabis by Brits here

That said, the illicit market for cannabis is still booming. Support for cannabis legalisation continues to have a foothold among a core base of users in the UK. This base has consistently pursued a regulated cannabis market despite fluctuations in use rates over the years, and it is unlikely that this movement will be satisfied without substantial drug policy reforms.

Drug Trends for Alcohol

Another area in which young Brits appear to be cutting down is alcohol consumption. Studies by the NHS have consistently found that older people drink more than young people. However, this discrepancy has only continued to increase. Since 2011, rates of those abstaining from alcohol consumption for a year or more has increased from 19% to 38%. 

This is a significant shift in the attitude young people have towards alcohol, as many appear to be less interested than previous generations. The average units of alcohol consumed per week has also decreased from 13.9 units in 2012 to 10.5 in 2021. This suggests that those who do drink are also choosing to consume less as a whole. 

While alcohol is still by far one of the most consumed substances by young people in the UK, the stats appear to demonstrate a cultural shift towards moderation and mindfulness around drinking – one which may have been learned by public health information and the excess alcohol related deaths of previous generations. 

Drug Trends for Hallucinogens

There appears to be an uptake in the number of young people consuming hallucinogens such as LSD, magic mushrooms, and ketamine. Use of magic mushrooms for instance has increased from 0.8% in 2014/15 to 1.9% in 2022/23. LSD has resurged from rates that stayed below 1% between 2002-2014 to 1.5% in 2023. Finally, ketamine, a drug which wasn’t included on the CSEW until 2006 has registered the highest usage rates ever recorded of 3.8%. 

These shifts in drug consumption suggest that young people are preferring to use substances which provide a transformative and introspective experience as opposed to the euphoric social effects provided by substances like ecstasy or cocaine. 


Generally speaking, the data that we have appears to show a trend towards moderation in young people. Illicit drug use has fallen from the highs of 30% at the turn of the century to 17.6% in 2023, where this trend appears to apply for most drugs apart from ketamine. Alcohol and smoking has decreased, and many are choosing sober lifestyles or seeking healthier ways to consume drugs whenever they can. 

This is not to say that risky drug use does not exist – it absolutely does. But these forms of riskier drug use appear to be confined to a smaller cohort of users as compared to 15-20 years ago. Information about the lethality, effects, and testing methods for drugs is more prevalent than it ever was, and this has likely contributed to reducing riskier forms of consumption among young people.

Access to the supply of drugs has never been so easy with the internet, yet many young people appear to be reducing or opting out of substance use altogether. While there are a myriad of reasons that could account for this change, it is important to recognise the bigger picture about substance use among young people when moral panics are propagating in the media.

This piece was written by Oliver Callaghan. X @Oliver1331556

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