Illicit drug use among adults
The main facts and figures show that:
Black adults were nearly 3 and a half times as likely as Asian adults to have used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to the survey
Black women were nearly 25 times as likely as Asian women to have used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to the survey
Things you need to know
The survey covers people aged 16 or over who live in private households. A household survey that measures drug use and dependence won’t include several groups in which drug use occurs. These include students in halls of residence, the homeless, and those living in institutional settings such as hospitals and prisons. Some drug users living in private households may also be less likely to participate in surveys, as they may lead chaotic lives that make them less available, able or willing to answer survey questions. There were 7,546 respondents to the survey.
These statistics have been age-standardised so comparisons can be made between ethnic groups as if they had the same age profile (an age profile shows the number of people of different ages within an ethnic group). The statistics do not tell you the actual percentage of people in each ethnic group who used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to the survey.
Keep in mind when making comparisons between ethnic groups that all survey estimates are subject to a degree of uncertainty as they are based on a sample of the population. The degree of uncertainty is greater when the number of respondents is small, so it will be highest for minority ethnic groups.
The ethnic groupings used here are broad; there is no breakdown of data for the more specific ethnic groups each contains. Some of the specific ethnic groups have very different experiences to one another. For example, the Black/Black British group could include both recent migrants from Somalia and Black people born in Britain to British parents.
What the data measures
This data measures the percentage of people aged 16 and older in England who used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to the survey. The data source is the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) that was conducted in private households across England in 2014.
Drug misuse is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the use of a substance for a purpose not consistent with legal or medical guidelines. An example would be the non-medical use of prescription medications or the recreational use of illegal drugs.
Those surveyed were asked if they had, within the past year, used one of 15 types of named drugs: cannabis, amphetamines, amyl nitrite (poppers), anabolic steroids, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, heroin, ketamine, mephedrone, LSD, magic mushrooms, methadone, tranquilisers, and inhalants (volatile substances such as glue, gas, aerosols or solvents). The drugs asked about are those considered to be mostly widely used.
A range of new psychoactive substances (NPS) has entered the drugs market but were not assessed in this survey. Uncertainty over their content and rapid changes in what is available makes measuring the use of these substances in surveys extremely challenging.
The ethnic categories used in this data
For this data, the number of people surveyed (the ‘sample size’) was too small to draw any firm conclusions about detailed ethnic categories. Therefore, the data is broken down into the following broad groups, based on the ONS harmonised ethnic group questions for use on national surveys.
- Asian/Asian British
- Black/Black British
- Mixed/Multiple and Other
- White British
- White Other
Percentage of adults who used illicit drugs by ethnicity and sex
Percentage of adults who used illicit drugs by ethnicity and sex
While the chart and table show apparent differences between ethnic groups in terms of illicit drug use, the small number of respondents for some groups means only the following observations are meaningful:
Black adults were more likely to have used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to survey, compared to all other groups except Other White
separately, Black women were more likely to have have used illicit drugs, compared to all other groups except Other White and Mixed
Asian adults, and Asian women separately, were the least likely to have used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to survey
an estimated 11.7% of Black adults used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to the survey, compared with 3.4% of Asian adults
an estimated 9.7% of Black women used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to the survey, compared with 0.4% of Asian women
Questions about drug use were asked using a computer-assisted self-completion interview (CASI), as in the 2000 and 2007 surveys. They covered lifetime experience of 15 types of named drug, together with use in the past year. The drugs asked about are those considered to be mostly widely used. New psychoactive substances (NPS) were not included.
Each survey involved interviewing a large stratified probability sample of the general population, covering people living in private households. The full adult age range was covered, with the youngest participants aged 16 and the oldest over 100.
The resulting statistics for illicit drug use have been age-standardised. This is because the prevalence of use of illicit drugs is related to age and the age profile (the number of people of different ages within an ethnic group) can differ considerably between ethnic groups. This adjustment allows comparisons to be made between ethnic groups as if they had the same age profile.
The survey covers people who live in private households. It doesn’t include those who live in institutional settings or in temporary housing (such as hostels or bed and breakfasts) or those who sleep rough.
Where a selected participant could not take part in a long interview due to a physical or mental health condition, some information about this was recorded by the interviewer on the doorstep. This information may be biased due to it having been collected from another household member.
Socially undesirable or stigmatised feelings and behaviours may be underreported. While this is a risk for any study based on self-report data, the study goes some way to minimising this by collecting particularly sensitive information in a self-completion format.
Some people selected for the survey could not be contacted or refused to take part. The achieved response rate (57%) is in line with that of similar surveys (Barnes et al. 2010; cited in APMS 2014). Weighting helps take account of those who were selected for the survey but didn’t take part.
Weighting is used to adjust the results of a survey to make them representative of the population and improve their accuracy. For example, a survey which contains 25% women and 75% men will not accurately reflect the views of the general population which we know is around 50% men and 50% women.
More detailed information on the weighting used here can be found on page 24 of the Methods chapter of the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014 (PDF).
The confidence intervals for each ethnic group are available in the ‘download the data’ section.
6.2% of White British women surveyed used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to the survey. This is a reliable estimate of the percentage of White British women in England who used illicit drugs in that time period. Because the APMS results are based on a random sample of adults aged 16 or older, however, it’s impossible to be 100% certain of the true percentage.
It’s 95% certain, however, that somewhere between 5.2% and 7.3% of all White British women in England used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to the survey. In statistical terms, this is a 95% confidence interval. This means that if 100 random samples were taken, then 95 times out of 100 the estimate would fall between the lower and upper bounds of the confidence interval. But 5 times out of 100 it would fall outside this range.
The smaller the survey sample, the more uncertain the estimate and the wider the confidence interval. For example, fewer women from the Black/Black British ethnic group were sampled for this survey than British White women, so we can be less certain about the estimate for the smaller group. This greater uncertainty is expressed by the wider confidence interval of between 5.3% and 17.1%.
Suppression rules and disclosure control
Risk to disclosure has been accounted for with limitations of the level of disaggregation, size of category groupings, and the maintaining of large underlying populations for analysis. No further suppression or other disclosure control has been applied.
Percentages have been rounded to one decimal point.
Full references for other sources cited in this commentary can be found in the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey: Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, England, 2014.Quality and methodology information
Further technical information
Type of data
Type of statistic
Purpose of data source
The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) series shows the proportion of adults in England who have or exhibit symptoms of mental illness and/or are receiving treatment for mental illness. It doesn’t include the homeless or people in hostels, hospitals, prisons or other institutional settings.
Download the data
The estimated percentage of adults who used illicit drugs in England in the 12 months prior to the APMS survey by ethnicity and sex. The data is further disaggregated by the type of drug used however due to small sample sizes some for some of the categories there is no data available. 95% confidence intervals have been provided for the ‘any drug in the past year’ category.