EMCDDA logo Annual report on the state of the drugs problem in the European Union 2001

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Introduction to the annual report
Chapter 1: Drug demand and drug supply
Drug use
Health consequences
Law-enforcement indicators
Drug-market indicators
Chapter 2: Responses to drug use
Chapter 3: Selected issues
Chapter 4: The drugs problem in central and eastern European countries
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Drug use

Drug use: Drug use in the general population | Problem drug use

Drug use in the general population

An estimation of the proportion of the population that uses drugs, or that has experimented with them, is basic information to assess the drug situation, to develop policies and to evaluate them. It is necessary to know in which groups drug use is concentrated and the patterns of use.

Methods employed to estimate drug use in the general population

General population surveys are employed to estimate drug use. Twelve Member States have conducted national surveys during recent years on drug use in the general population (although in Luxembourg the sample was small) and the remaining ones (Italy, Portugal and Austria) are currently organising them. Several countries have already established series of repeated national surveys using the same methodology (for example Germany, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom) and in Greece, France and the Netherlands series have been initiated. Some countries have successive ad hoc surveys which are comparable to some extent (for example Denmark, Finland and France).

There are differences across countries in methods of data collection, sampling sizes and frames, which could influence the precision and validity of estimates. Until these issues are solved, direct comparisons between levels of use in Member States should be made with caution, especially where differences are small.

The EMCDDA has developed guidelines to improve quality and comparability of population surveys in the EU. These guidelines include a set of common core items that can be used to report data from existing surveys or that can be inserted into broader questionnaires and basic methodological guidelines, and they are gradually being implemented in the Member States.

Patterns of drug use
In all EU countries, cannabis is the illegal substance most commonly used, both in terms of lifetime experience (any use during a person's lifetime) and in recent use. Use of other illegal substances is less common.

Cannabis lifetime experience in the adult population (15 to 64 years according to the EMCDDA standard, although with some national differences) ranges from about 10 % in Finland to about 20 to 25 % in Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Figure 1 OL Lifetime experience of cannabis, amphetamines and cocaine among adults in some EU countries, measured by national population surveys

Other substances have been experienced by far fewer persons. Experience with amphetamines is reported by 1 to 4 % of adults, but by up to 10 % in the United Kingdom. Ecstasy has been tried by 0.5 to 4 % of European adults and cocaine by 0.5 to 3 %. Heroin experience is reported generally by less than 1 % of adults, which contrasts with its high presence in drug-problem indicators.

Illegal drug use is concentrated in some groups of the population -in particular young adults, males and urban inhabitants. Young adults (aged 15 to 34 according to the EMCDDA standard with some national differences) present rates up to double or more than those of the whole adult population for most drugs.

Figure 2 OL Last-12-months prevalence of ecstasy and cocaine by age group in England and Wales, 1998

Figure 3 OL Lifetime experience of cannabis among all adults and among young adults in some EU countries, measured by national population surveys

For example, cannabis has been tried by about 15 % of young adults in Finland and Sweden, up to about 28 to 40 % in Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom, while amphetamines, ecstasy and cocaine have been tried by about 1 to 6 % of young adults (although in the United Kingdom figures for amphetamine and ecstasy are around 16 and 8 % respectively). Higher rates of drug use are evident among males, although this varies across countries and differences tend to decrease over time.

Figure 4 OL Lifetime experience of cannabis among adults (males and females) in some EU countries, measured by national population surveys

Inhabitants of urban areas report higher rates of drug use than those of rural areas, and differences in overall national figures could be largely conditioned by the proportion of urban population.

Figure 5 OL Lifetime experience of cannabis among adults in Finland by level of urbanisation, 1998

Although widely used, lifetime experience is insufficient to estimate recent drug use since it includes all those who have ever tried drugs, whether once or years ago. Recent use is usually estimated as any use during the previous year (last-12-months prevalence).

Recent use (expressed as last-12-months use) of cannabis is reported by 1 to 9 % of European adults. Recent use of other illegal substances rarely exceeds 1 % among adults. Young adults report higher prevalence figures, roughly double that for all adults. In Ireland, Spain (for cocaine) and the United Kingdom figures tend to be somewhat higher than in other countries.

Figure 6 OL Lifetime experience and last-12-months prevalence of cannabis among adults in some EU countries, measured by national population surveys

Information on drug trends can be more informative than a fixed picture. However, until now only Germany, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom have carried out series of comparable, national surveys. Other countries conducted several different surveys and trends have to be analysed with caution.

Lifetime experience of cannabis increased over the 1990s in most countries where information is available. In recent surveys, many countries report relatively similar prevalence figures — roughly 20 to 25 %. Where prevalence was low early in the 1990s (for example, in Greece, Finland and Sweden), increases seem to have been proportionally greater than where initial prevalence was higher (for example, in Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom).

Figure 1, Recent use (last-12-months prevalence) of cannabis, amphetamines and cocaine among young adults in some EU countries, measured by national population surveys

Increased lifetime experience of cannabis does not necessarily imply a parallel growth in recent use. Last-12-months prevalence has generally risen less than lifetime experience.


Figure 2, Evolution of lifetime experience and recent use (last-12-months prevalence) of cannabis among adults in some EU countries during the 1990s, measured by population surveys

Trends in the use of other substances are more difficult to track. These developments tend to involve relatively limited groups of the population, but nevertheless they can have important implications on public health and drug policy. For example, the much-discussed possible increase in cocaine use still needs to be analysed in more detail in most countries. Also, recent increase in ecstasy use — well documented among groups of young people — does not show up clearly in population surveys covering the whole population. Samples have to be large enough and the analysis focused on appropriate age groups. Oversampling of young people should also be considered.

Drug use in the school population

For under-18-year-olds, the EMCDDA draws on information from a comparable schools survey which includes data from 30 participating countries in Europe and also data from the United States. Eleven EU Member States participated in the most recent 1999 European School survey project (ESPAD)(1), which describes tobacco, alcohol and other drug use among 15 to 16-year-old students. Belgium, Luxembourg, and Spain also conducted school surveys in 1998 or 1999 independently from the ESPAD survey and the results from these are consistent with those from ESPAD.

Situation and patterns

These surveys show that cannabis continues to be the most widely used illegal substance among school students. Lifetime experience among 15 to 16-year-old students ranges from 8 % in Sweden and Portugal to 35 % in France and the United Kingdom. In two Member States (Greece and Sweden), lifetime use of inhalants (volatile substances) is higher than, or equals, that of cannabis. School surveys report lifetime use of amphetamine by 1 to 8 % of 15 to 16-year-old school students, ecstasy use by 1 to 5 %, and figures for lifetime use of cocaine are between 1 and 4 %, with Spain and the Netherlands at the higher end of cocaine use.

A different pattern occurs in illicit lifetime use of tranquillisers and sedatives (without a doctor's prescription) where the United Kingdom and Norway, at 4 %, are at the lowest end of illicit lifetime experience and France at the highest (12 %). Illicit lifetime use of tranquillisers and sedatives is higher amongst girls than boys in France, Portugal, Italy, Finland, and Sweden. In contrast, lifetime prevalence for illegal drugs is higher amongst boys than girls in all Member States.

It is worth noting that comparable data from the United States show that figures for lifetime use of a number of illegal drugs are higher than in any of the EU Member States: cannabis (41 %), amphetamine (16 %), ecstasy (6 %) and cocaine (8 %).

There is a negative relationship between the prevalence rate of illegal drug use in a country and the perceived risk attributed to that particular drug, and girls are generally more apt than boys to consider illegal drug use a risk. Disapproval of illegal drug use is consistently high among boys and girls in all the EU Member States at around 80 % on average, excluding disapproval of cannabis, which is lower at 70 % average.


In all except two of the Member States (United Kingdom and Ireland) that participated in both the early and later ESPAD surveys, the lifetime prevalence of all illegal drug use increased between 1995 and 1999.

Lifetime use of cannabis
Figures of illegal drug taking in general by 15 to 16-year-old school students are largely determined by cannabis figures. In the majority of countries the prevalence of lifetime cannabis has increased.

In Finland and Norway, lifetime use of cannabis figures doubled between 1995 and 1999. Increases also occurred in Sweden, Portugal, Denmark and Italy. However, there was a decrease in the two Member States which had the highest lifetime prevalence of cannabis in 1995. In the United Kingdom, between 1995 and 1999 it decreased from 41 to 35 % and in Ireland from 37 to 32 %.

Perceived availability of cannabis increased substantially in Denmark, Finland, Italy and Norway between 1995 and 1999. In Ireland and the United Kingdom, there were decreases in the perceived availability of cannabis but the decrease is less than the decrease in lifetime prevalence.

Lifetime use of 'other illicit drugs' (amphetamine, LSD/hallucinogen, crack, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin) The ESPAD survey also shows an increase in lifetime use of collapsed categories of 'other illicit drugs' in the majority of Member States but a sharp decline in the United Kingdom and Ireland, where it fell from 22 to 12 % and from 16 to 9 % respectively. Increases in the majority of Member States and declines in the United Kingdom and Ireland confirm the trend towards convergence in patterns of drug use among the Member States. The substantial decrease in Ireland and the United Kingdom may imply that in advanced stages of drug diffusion the pool of 15 to 16-year-olds willing to experiment with illegal drugs is becoming saturated.

Lifetime use of tranquillisers or sedatives without a doctor's prescription
Traditionally, use of tranquillisers or sedatives without a doctor's prescription has been considerably higher amongst girls than boys. Between 1995 and 1999, girls in Denmark, Italy, Ireland, and the United Kingdom showed substantial decreases of around a half in the figures for lifetime prevalence of tranquillisers and sedatives without a doctor's prescription. In contrast, girls in Finland and Portugal showed increases (3 % and 2 % respectively), whilst boys in these two countries showed decreases.

Lifetime use of inhalants
There was little change in lifetime use of inhalants except in Sweden and the United Kingdom where there was a decrease between 1995 and 1999.

(1) The 1999 ESPAD report: 'Alcohol and other drug use among students in 30 European countries', B. Hibbell, B. Andersson, S. Ahlstršm, O. Balakireva, T. Bjarnson, A. Kokkevi, M. Morgan, the Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs (CAN), the Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe, December 2000.

Drug use: Drug use in the general population | Problem drug use

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