Drug use in the general population (1) (2)

Reliable information on the extent and patterns of drug use and age at first use among the general population and young people, as well as on the characteristics of users and risk perceptions, is important when formulating and evaluating drug policies and prevention initiatives. Drug use in the general population is measured by surveys, which provide estimates of the proportion of the population who have used drugs at any time. The most common measures are:

The figures for ‘lifetime experience’ are always higher than for the other two groups, as this group includes everyone who has ever tried drugs, no matter how long ago this was. ‘Recent use’ figures are generally lower but better reflect the prevailing situation. ‘Current use’ may be an indicator of the number of people who use drugs regularly, but figures are generally low. A combination of lifetime experience and recent or current use can provide insight into drug-use patterns (e.g. continuation rates).

Many surveys also investigate age at first drug use and frequency of use, data which allow estimations of incidence and reveal differences in patterns of use, such as higher doses or more frequent use (which imply increased risk). In addition, correlations between drug use and sociodemographic factors, opinions and risk perceptions, lifestyles, health problems, etc. can be established.

A number of factors need to be taken into account when considering differences in the overall national figures. The relative sizes of the urban and rural populations in each country may partly account for the differences. Other sources of variation include factors to do with generation (for example, the birth cohort in which drug use became widespread) and the extent of convergence of the lifestyles of young men and women. Social and cultural context can also influence self-reporting of drug use. Finally, methodological questions such as sampling errors and non-response can influence results. Comparative analysis across countries should be made with caution, in particular where differences are small, and formulation and evaluation of drug policy should take into consideration, among other criteria, specific age groups, birth cohorts, gender and place of residence (i.e. urban versus rural) of the studied population.


(1) For further explanation, see Box 1 OL: Methods used to estimate drug use in the general population.

(2)  See the EMCDDA guidelines for the key indicator ‘prevalence and patterns of drug use among the general population – population surveys’.