The British and Drugs

Drugs are highly prevalent in British society. What kind of experiences do young British people have and are drugs really as bad as you think?


One question I get asked a lot by curious Koreans is whether I’ve tried drugs. They’re aware that drug culture is a large part of British society and as drugs are almost completely restricted in Korea, people want to know what taking drugs is like.

I’m not going to comment on whether or not I have tried drugs, but I will attempt to explain how common drug taking is in the UK, what kind of drugs people take and more.

If you’ve ever watched the drama series ‘Skins’ you’ll have noticed that drug use amongst young people on the show is frequent. While it is obviously exaggerated to some extent for the TV, it’s not far from the truth.

So what drugs do young people in the UK take? The most common by far is alcohol, but for the purposes of this article, we won’t really consider it to be a ‘drug’ as such as it’s not illegal. The most common illegal drug is cannabis by a long way, followed by ‘party drugs’ such as ecstasy and ketamine.

When I was growing up in Bristol, drugs were all around me. The smell of cannabis or weed as it’s more commonly known was very strong in certain parts of the city. People would take ecstasy and cocaine at parties as well as other drugs.

This is not to mention music festivals, which are an important part of growing up in the UK. Many teenagers go to music festivals such as Glastonbury and Reading with their friends. At these festivals, it is very common to drink, smoke weed and take a range of other drugs including ecstasy and speed.

As far as I know, highly addictive drugs such as heroin and crack were never easily available and certainly never knew anyone who took them. People tended to stick to ‘party drugs’ such as ecstacy or cannabis. 

According to an article in the Guardian newspaper it is estimated that the number of young adults in Britain who had tried an illegal drug in the 1960s was fewer than 5%. This reached roughly 10% in the 1970s, and 15-20% in the 1980s. By 1995, nearly half of all young people said they had taken drugs. Another source estimates that nearly 3 in 5 British teenagers have tried cannabis and that the British were the largest consumers of cocaine in Europe. So we can see that it has become increasingly common over the years.

So why do the British take so many drugs? Part of it comes from an extremely well established drinking culture where it is acceptable and even encouraged to become intoxicated from a young age. This, it could be said, leads to trying other kinds of drugs and their use being more accepted.

Drugs are also easily available and quite cheap in lots of British cities. Getting the name and number of a dealer is not hard, and there is usually someone at a party who knows this information and can ‘hook people up’ with what they need.

Finally, drugs have been linked by many to Britain’s diverse music scene. Listening to music goes well with taking drugs. Hip hop glorifies smoking weed and rave music is associated with ecstasy. Rock and roll always tended to be more alcohol based, however stories of rock stars over the years snorting cocaine and other drugs has become part of culture and history. It has become glamorised and normalised since the 1960s when bands took drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms to aid creativity. The Beatles classic album revolver was heavily influenced by LSD at the time according to a 2016 article in Rolling Stone magazine.

Photo by cottonbro on

What do I think about drugs? Well, alcohol is a drug and one which kills more people each year than any other. I also know no known deaths in history have been attributed to cannabis use for example. So, while I am obviously against the use of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine, which cause untold misery all over the world, there’s a case for reforming our approach to the policing of more mainstream drugs such as alcohol and cannabis.


Published by nickteacher

Nick Simpson is a UK-born English professor living and working in South Korea. He writes about life in Korea, cross-cultural differences and family life.

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