Do students use drugs more than other young people?

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Today and article in the Daily Mail caught my eye (no, I didn’t buy it, I got sent a link).  It highlighted a survey asking students to declare their drug use.  I was interested to see how this stacked up against the national figures…

An article saying students use drugs isn’t anything new or particularly shocking is it?  The title of the article ‘Leeds University most popular institution for drug users as eight out of ten undergraduates admit to trying illicit substances‘ isn’t a good one for Leeds and seems to suggest that students chose universities based on how many drugs they can get.  I think most are a little more discerning than that. The poll was of around 5000 students at 21 Universities (of which mine was not one). The figures seem quite high though don’t they – eight out of ten students have used drugs?

Click the image to enlarge!

I pulled out the statistics from that article and from the England and Wales Crime Survey (Home Office data) and displayed them in the picture above (click to enlarge).  I chose to use only the four most commonly used drugs for the graphic – cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy (MDMA) and ketamine (discounting laughing gas for which only the student data was available -45 % had tried it!).  For those four drugs shown the student population was at least twice as likely to have tried a drug (cannabis) up to ten times more likely (ketamine) than the general population.

The survey also included ‘Magic Mushrooms’ (students = 19%, 16-24 = 5%, 16-59 = 7.5%) and LSD with 10 %, 2.4%  and 5% respectively.  The other drugs listed could not be directly compared across the populations.


What does it tell us about student behaviour?

From the data published in the two sources it would appear that students are more likely to try drugs than the greater population.  The response to have you every tried any drug shows the students at 70 % almost twice the prevalence of the overall adult population at 38 %.  Even the lowest ranked University on the list for drug use – Cambridge – had 57 % say yes to having tried a drug.  However only 4 % of respondents said they needed drugs to have a good night out!

So are drugs more readily available to students?  Do they have a higher disposable income or more free time than other 16-24 year olds?  Or is the survey produced to provoke a higher response rate than that of the Home Office?  Without seeing the whole survey including questions asked that is very hard to tell.

I am not surprised students are more likely to try drugs but I also think the data gathering of the two surveys may produce bias in the answers.


As it is, it makes good headline news for the Mail. Unless you’re Leeds Uni!


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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. Dr B is currently a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. And yes... he watches CSI.