The notion that Generation Z has turned its back on getting high just became less believable, as new figures show a sharp jump in the number of young people using cocaine, ketamine and LSD. Home Office statistics published today reveal that the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK who have used any class A drugs in the last year – 8.4 percent – is now the highest it's been for 12 years.
In the last five years, the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds using cocaine has doubled, from 3 percent in 2012-13 to 6 percent in 2017-18. After dwindling use since 2011, last year ketamine use among young people tripled compared to 2015-16. LSD, while still a niche high compared to most drugs, has jumped to levels of use among young people not seen since 2000.
The new figures reflect the findings of last year's NHS survey among school children, which showed an increase in the proportion of 11 to 15-year-olds who had taken a drug in the last year, from 10.3 percent in 2014 to 14.8 percent in 2016. This included an increase from 2 percent to 3.2 percent of children using class A drugs.
The statistics will come as a surprise to many observers, including myself and the authors of a recent report, who say Generation Z – those aged between 13 and 23 today – are shunning drugs, sex and alcohol in favour of healthy food, social media and studying.
It's true, though, that this acceleration of drug use among young people is not totally out of the blue. It comes on the back of a recent steady upturn – following a significant fall since the early 2000s – of drug use by young people and among the general population. In a weird coincidence, it seems British people started taking more drugs almost as soon as David Cameron told us in 2012 that there was no need to re-evaluate the government's drug policy on the basis that drug use was going out of fashion.
That more young people are using cocaine can't come as too much of shock. Purity is massively up and the price of an average gram has stayed relatively low, even if there are some sellers punting what they claim to be 90 percent pure gram bags for £120 a pop. Nightclubs have closed down across the country, but this has fuelled a rise in a new breed of luxury bars where cocaine is very much at home.
Ketamine is a strange one, and like with cocaine it's not just risen in popularity with young people' it's adults too. It was a drug on the rise before a nationwide drought in 2012 curtailed its use. Perhaps higher purity ketamine sold by dark web manufacturers – alongside the rise of festival culture and the use of other psychedelics, such as LSD – may have encouraged more people to try K out.
"I guess this shows how we have to be nuanced and not run away with ideas," says Chloe Combi, author of Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives. "Yes, booze and fags and some drugs are declining in Gen Z culture, but clearly not all. In uncertain times, people like to get out of themselves and out of it, and none more so than a generation most affected by uncertainty and wanting to experiment. Added to which, Gen Z are prone to risk-taking, and I guess this tallies with that."
Combi says she's not surprised about the jump in cocaine use among young people: "I've been observing a massive embrace of cocaine across the classes, and it's really obvious to see. In some places the street price is as low as £35 to £40 for cocaine, which is affordable for older Gen Z and younger millennials. Cocaine has a broad, across the classes appeal – so rich and poor young adults don't mind being seen doing it. You can see the lowliest young street slingers to billionaire Gen Z kids in clubs buzzing on coke."
Even though the new figures show an arresting rise in the use of some drugs among young people, this does not necessarily mean they are necking them in large amounts. Professor Harry Sumnall, an expert in drug use at Liverpool John Moores University, points out that "while more young people are reporting use of certain drugs in the previous year, there does not seem to be a lot of evidence that this is translating into regular or frequent use".
Sumnall points out that data within the Home Office's survey shows the vast majority of young people who use class A drugs do so infrequently. For example, last year only 12.8 percent of cocaine users aged 16-24 said they had used the drug more than once a month, compared to 26.8 percent in 2008-09.
"The general downward trend [since the early-2000s] still holds, although the new data reminds us that like all other consumer goods, drugs are also subject to cultural influences, fashions and wider market forces," says Sumnall. "For example, police and Border Force seizure data shows cocaine is at its highest purity for many years, although the price hasn’t increased in response, and international production seems to have increased due to political changes in producer and transit countries."
Drug trends are influenced by many drivers of change, some on a global tectonic scale and some that are relatively momentary. What we do know is that the law has a negligible effect – people will take drugs regardless. It's too simplistic to say Generation Z has fallen out of love with drugs. As these figures remind us, they're sticking around. But just as the drug trade has transformed over the last decade, with an explosion in different substances and buying online, so too can the circumstances in which drugs are taken. If these are dramatically altered, whether as a result of new drugs or new ways of living, then the fluctuating trends we've seen since the 1960s could be set on an entirely new course.