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The UK Drug and Alcohol Use Survey 2021

Posted by Mike Delaney
on 25 Aug 2021

What’s included

  1. Introduction
  2. An Overview of Substance Abuse
  3. How Substances can Impact Lives
  4. The Rate of Alcohol Use in 2021
  5. How Many People Use Drugs in the UK?
  6. The UK’s Prescription Drug Problem
  7. Overuse of Over The Counter Medication
  8. The Rate of Recovery
  9. Methodology & Sources

Drug and alcohol use has touched millions of peoples lives in the UK for many years. In England, there are an estimated 586,780 dependent drinkers. Only 18% are receiving treatment.

Similarly, an estimated 3.2million people in the UK had used drugs in the last year, with 2.1% of the population thought to be ‘frequent’ drug users. 

The drinking culture in the country has made it socially acceptable to discuss weekend drinking or drug habits, yet many who struggle with dependency do not feel the same way. 

During the pandemic, several reports have shown that alcohol and certain drug consumption increased, with many citing the pressure of the ‘new way of life’ as the reason. In fact, government research found that alcohol sales had increased 25% during lockdowns, despite pubs and bars being closed. 

To find out more about the use of drugs and alcohol across the country, the addiction experts here at Delamere have surveyed 2,000 adults living in the UK on their consumption.

An Overview of Substance Use

First, we look at the difference in drug and alcohol use between age, sex and location of UK residents. 

We found that 73% of people in the country have taken drugs or drank alcohol before. In the last twelve months alone, 49% of UK residents had consumed alcohol and 36% had taken drugs. 

Alcohol use by sex was fairly even, with 50% of men having drunk in the last year and 49% of women, yet looking at illegal substances or prescription medication a gap emerges. 

Men were more likely to have taken illegal drugs either ever or in the last year, while women had a higher overuse of prescription drugs such as Diazepam or Ritalin, and over the counter (OTC) medication i.e. Nytol and Sudafed. However, the most commonly used drug across all respondents was Codeine taken outside of a prescription. 

The level of use of different substances also ranged across the country. Looking at the ten main substances we surveyed, half of them – Cannabis, Ecstasy, “legal highs”, OTC medication and Heroin – had the highest use in the North of England.

Brighton was the drug use hotspot in the South, with the highest rate of use for Cocaine, Ketamine and MDMA. The use of painkillers such as Codeine and Tramadol outside of a prescription was more prevalent in Belfast and Cardiff had the biggest rate of people taking these drugs outside of a prescription. 

After alcohol, Cannabis had the highest rate of use during the pandemic from our respondents. One in ten people aged 25-34 had smoked the drug in the last twelve months, this rises to 16% in the 18-24 age category.

How Substances can Impact Lives

Not only can drug and alcohol use have a huge impact on the person using them, but also their family, friends and occasionally the wider community. Because of this, we asked respondents how their lives have been affected by drug and alcohol use 

Worryingly, we found that one in ten people (10%) in the UK felt that their drug and alcohol use is putting a strain on their health and one in twelve (8%) said it puts pressure on their relationships. 

Finances are also a significant concern for those who become dependent on substances. Of the people we surveyed, 7% said that drugs and alcohol are leading to financial hardship while one in every 25 said it is impacting their career.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, Advisory Board Member at Delamere:

“Pre-covid 57% of all workplace sickness absence was due to stress or anxiety, so it comes as little surprise that many are concerned how their consumption impacts their career. 

“Whether the source of stress is due to work or home, it’s undeniable that one of the ways stress manifests itself is with the use of alcohol or drugs. Some workers will be turning to substances to alleviate the stress of their careers.

“While one in twenty-five say their consumption harms their career, this is likely to be under-reported. For every person concerned their intake impacts their job, there will be plenty more whose behaviour is being picked up by their employers.”

While substance use between the sexes was fairly even, men are almost three times (32%) more likely to be worried about how drinking or substance abuse is affecting their lives, compared to women where 24% said the same.

When considering how substance use is impacting people around them, many respondents said that they were worried about someone else’s use. A third of those we surveyed are concerned about a loved one’s drinking or drug use. 

The biggest worry was alcohol, with one in seven saying that in the last year they have been concerned with a friend or family member’s drinking. Belfast was the city where alcohol concern was highest, with 21% of people there worried compared with 5% in Edinburgh. Illegal drug concerns were most common in Leeds (one in six) and family member prescription drug overuse was more likely to be in London (one in nine).

The Rate of Alcohol Use in 2021

Alcohol is the most used substance out of all of the ones we surveyed the UK on, with one in two (49%) saying they have drunk it in the last year. 

While this comes as no surprise, as many drink alcohol socially, the findings confirm that alcohol is not just used in social situations.

One finding that stood out was that almost two thirds (60%) of UK residents drink alone occasionally, and 5% only ever drink alone. Men were 13% more likely to drink on their own, and Sheffield is home to the most solo drinkers. 

While men were more likely to drink alone, women have a different relationship with alcohol. We found that more women rely on alcohol to give them extra confidence, with a fifth (20%) saying they regularly do this. 

Even though pubs, bars and clubs were closed for around 31 weeks in 2020, Covid brought many changes to the nation’s drinking habits. The survey found that one in four (22%) of adults had increased their alcohol consumption in the last year. 

The biggest pandemic drinking increase was found in those aged 18-24, with almost a third (32%) saying they had started drinking more in the past year when compared to the previous year. Newcastle saw the biggest rise, with one in every three (30%) residents saying they had increased their alcohol intake in the last 12 months.

Martin Preston, Founder & Chief Executive at Delamere said: 

“During a guest’s admission at Delamere and throughout their stay, we work with them to identify what has been underpinning their struggle with addiction. 

“Trauma is so often part of the picture.  Sometimes it’s what we might call ‘big T’ trauma which might be post-traumatic stress, a significant loss, an adverse childhood experience. Sometimes it’s so-called ‘little T’ trauma which is no less detrimental and includes relational troubles, divorce, financial stress.  

“Increasingly and certainly over the last 12 months, it hasn’t been uncommon that the pandemic has been cited by guests as part of what they have struggled with. Many guests have relayed that they were drinking heavily but just about functioning and then lockdown hit and working from home or struggling with covid related anxiety for instance meant they started drinking more than usual. 

“We’ve also worked with several guests who had been actively sober for many years and resumed drinking during a lockdown. The Covid pandemic has taken its toll certainly and the fallout is likely to be with us for several years.”

How Many People Use Drugs in the UK?

Drug misuse is something that the government suggests directly affects over three million people in the UK (9%). Our findings confirm this and show which different substances are being used – and where. 

We surveyed UK residents on ten of the most commonly used drugs to see which are most prevalent and how the pandemic has impacted use. 

Our findings show that 53% – or over one in two – people in the UK have ever tried drugs, not including alcohol, prescription medication and OTC drugs. While 27% of respondents had consumed drugs in the last year alone. 


The most commonly used drug in the UK was cannabis. In fact, our findings suggest that cannabis is almost more commonly used in the country than paracetamol.

A quarter of UK residents had tried cannabis before, with 7% of the country using it in the last year. 

Cannabis use was most prevalent in Yorkshire, Liverpool and London. In Yorkshire one in ten residents had used cannabis in the last year. Overall, one in twenty of our respondents had increased their use of the drug since the pandemic began.

Mike Delaney, Clinical Director at Delamere said: 

“Cannabis use is enmeshed in society now and is generally viewed by most people, as acceptable and less harmful than other addictive substances. 

It is certainly less of a problem concerning criminality and violence but the issue with mental health has been a talking point for many years. 

Pure Cannabis, or weed, in itself, was not seen as being as problematic as, for example, alcohol, which is involved in a large proportion of violent and sexual offences, however, the development of hybrids such as “skunk” has again rung alarm bells in some quarters.

The evidence suggests that young people who start to smoke skunk before the brain has fully matured are at a higher risk of mental health issues as they move forward. However, in my experience of working with people who have co-existing conditions, there was very little hard evidence to say that cannabis had caused the mental health issues.”


Next, we asked the UK public about their cocaine consumption, we found that one in ten had ever tried the drug and one in fifty had taken it in the last year.  The split across gender was equal, with a similar amount of men and women ever trying the drug. 

However, this changes when we look at pandemic use, as 38% more men used cocaine during lockdowns than women. Cocaine use over the last year was most prevalent in the 25-34 age group, with one in twenty-five using it. 

Leeds and Cardiff were most likely to consume cocaine within the last year, while Liverpool had the most overall use – as one in seven had used the drug. 

Mike Delaney, Clinical Director said:

“Due to the pandemic, many people were forced to be together for prolonged periods which can cause many problems, even for the happiest of family units. 

When relationships are strained, going out to work and doing things in the evenings can be the de-stressors which people need. When people are forced to be together day in, day out without respite, chemicals such as cocaine can improve mood, make conversation and connection easier and simply make life seem a little less bleak. 

This seems to be particularly the case in men who find it hard to discuss feelings whereas women tend to enjoy a more emotionally intimate relationship. 

The reason cocaine is so popular and so addictive for some people is that it can make you feel fantastic, no matter how bad things are. Prolonged use, however, brings a draft of serious mental health/anxiety/paranoia/psychosis symptoms, hence the ever-increasing dosage to feel “normal”

Ecstasy & MDMA

Ecstasy and MDMA are the terms for the same type of drug which often comes in a different format – tablet or powder form. The drug is typically used in party settings, so we looked at whether consumption had reduced over lockdowns. 

We found that a similar amount of people had used ecstasy recreationally as had used overused OTC drugs, at 7% for each. 

Liverpool had the highest rate of use, with one in every six having ever tried the drug and one in fifty having taken in within the last year. In fact, two-thirds (66%) of the respondents who reported increasing their use of ecstasy in the last year lived in Liverpool. 

Looking at all respondents, 7% of 18-24 years olds said they had ever taken the drug, compared to just 1% of over 55s. A similar number of 25-34 (12%), 35-44 (12%) and 45-54 (10%) had tried the drug before, showing how its prevalence in the 1990s has impacted the generations. 


A street drug that has seen its popularity increase over the last fifteen years is Ketamine. The drug, sold as a powder, is a powerful anaesthetic that reduces your physical and mental feelings.

Ketamine was one of the most used drugs from our survey, with three in fifty people have ever tried it. Less than 1% of respondents said they had used the drug since the pandemic began (13 people), but half of those reported that their consumption had increased last year compared to previous years. 

Most of the respondents who had tried the drug ever were under 35, and it was most popular in the South East. Brighton had the highest rate of use, where seven in every one-hundred had used the drug. 

Mike Delaney, Clinical Director said:

“Although Ketamine is seen as a party drug, it is a drug which people often use when they are alone as it has dissociative properties which detach us from reality.

There needs to be some research regarding the connection between trauma and ketamine use as the desire to “detach” may be linked to inner pain. 

Again, in lockdown, with increasing pressure on family relationships, it can be a way of “getting away from the stress” without leaving the house.”


A powerful and dangerous drug that comes in the format of a brown powder. It is highly addictive and is typically smoked or injected. 

One in every fifty of the 2,000 people we asked had ever tried heroin, and a quarter of those had taken it in the last year. Heroin use was most prevalent in the age 45-54 age group, with three in every one-hundred trying the drug. 

Men were 80% more likely to ever consume heroin than women, but pandemic use differs from this with the gap of just 20%.

The city with the highest use of the drug was Sheffield, where one in twenty had tried it. This is closely followed by Liverpool and Cardiff (one in twenty-five)

The UK’s Prescription Drug Problem

Prescription drugs are often overlooked when thinking of the problem of substance dependency, yet doctors and the government have recently warned that the scale of the prescription drug problem in the UK is almost as big as illegal drugs. 

Whether taken in or outside of a prescription, many become reliant on medication such as Diazepam, Codeine, Morphine or even sleeping pills. This often begins with an injury or illness, but these drugs are highly addictive and this can lead to overdose. 

One in ten UK residents have overused prescription medication outside of a prescription, a problem we found split equally between men and women. The biggest prescription problem was found in Wales, London, West Midlands and Edinburgh. 

A fifth of UK respondents had purchased prescription drugs rather than obtaining them via a GP, with 7% saying they had ordered the medication through the dark web. 

Men are twice as likely to use the dark web than women, while women were more likely (60%) to dishonestly obtain a prescription through their GP. Use of the dark web was heavily concentrated in the 25-34 age group, with 16% using the method compared to 1% of over 55s. 

Of those surveyed, one in five say they have been able to obtain prescription drugs, despite not having a prescription, typically through the dark web. Men aged between 25-35 were found to be the most likely group to use the dark web, with 16% admitting to this compared to just 1% of the over-55 age group.

Women were more likely to dishonestly obtain a prescription through their GP, comparing the two sexes there was a 60% increase in women doing this compared to men. 

Martin Preston, Founder & Chief Executive at Delamere said:

“It isn’t unusual that the primary reason a guest comes to stay with us is that prescription drugs have become a problem. So often these days we see polydrug use involving the misuse of prescription drugs (ie cocaine and benzodiazepines).

Prescription drugs from a pharmacy are highly regulated; for good reason.  When the regulation is observed there are strict controls around how medications are produced, kept, prescribed and distributed.  

Acquiring mediation illegally via sources like the dark web is dangerous because there is no way of knowing whether the medication has been substituted with something else that might cause dangerous side effects.  

It’s no safer than buying street drugs, even though the medication might come in official-looking packaging.”

Overuse of Over The Counter Medication

Over the counter, (OTC) drugs cover the brand names that we see on supermarket and pharmacy shelves, generally used temporarily to alleviate symptoms of common illnesses.

Yet these everyday brands can often become a problem if someone becomes reliant on using them for other purposes. 

We found that seven in every 100 people in the UK had overused OTC medication, such as Nytol and Sudafed, outside of alleviating symptoms. One in twenty of these were in the past year alone. 

Women were 27% more likely to self-medicate with OTC medication, especially those aged 45-54. This was most common in Sheffield, Southampton, Liverpool, Brighton and Glasgow. 

Mike Delaney, Clinical Director at Delamere said: 

“Women generally tend to be the main caregivers for spouses, children and extended family, so there is a lot of responsibility on them which often leads to feelings of being unappreciated and overworked. 

There is also the added pressure to “look good” so some OTC meds are used to suppress appetite as well as raise energy levels. 

This may also be linked to disordered eating such as binging and purging with laxatives but can also be codeine-based painkillers such as Nurofen Plus or Syndol. 

There is certainly less stigma attached to OTC drug use as opposed to illicit drug use, and there remains a greater stigma attached to women with addictive behaviours as opposed to men. 

Sadly, people tend to judge women with children much more harshly than men. OTC meds attract less attention as you can simply “buy them.”

The Rate of Recovery

After we asked the UK public about their drug and alcohol consumption, we looked at how many are actively trying to cut down and reduce their intake. 

We found that one in five respondents have tried to reduce their consumption of substances but fewer than one in ten (7%) have sought out professional help for this. Interestingly, men were much more likely to seek help than women, with 52% more men than women seeking help. 

Almost one in six thought they needed help cutting down but didn’t want to seek it.

Looking at the split within regions, 22% of people in Leeds had tried to cut down on their intake but had failed to do so. Those in London were the most likely to seek professional help with their drug or alcohol consumption with 12% of residents accessing treatment. 

Doctor Terry Spokes, Outcomes & Recovery Director at Delamere said: 

“In general, there seems to be growing acceptance of the importance for men seeking support for mental health and/or substance use struggles in the UK. 

Historically men seem to have found it more difficult to seek help so it’s positive to see this trend of men being prepared to seek support for substance use issues.

There are many reasons why it can be beneficial to seek help cutting down or cutting out drug and alcohol use. First and foremost it is safer to detox from drugs and alcohol with medical support. 

Secondly, cutting down drug and alcohol use is not just about removing the substance from your life. Accessing support can help you to understand the role that substances are playing in your life and to explore healthier more adaptive ways of meeting those needs.

Professional treatment can help someone to understand why they may be struggling with substance use in the first place and to help them create a foundation for long term wellbeing and recovery from substance misuse issues.”

Methodology & Sources

Through the research platform Censuswide, we surveyed residents of the UK to assess the scale of drug and alcohol use across the country. The data collection was based on an online survey sample of 2,000 nationally representative UK adults and ten questions were asked. It was important to understand major substance use statistics for the press and how this differs across the four demographic splits – particularly regional data.

About the author: Mike Delaney

Mike crafted our innovative and person centred approach to addiction treatment. Mike’s experience in the addiction treatment sector encompasses his work as a nurse, psychotherapist and Chief Executive.

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Heroin addiction treatment

Ketamine addiction

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