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Youth Development Study


Key Findings Exposure

  • Of the 3835 young people surveyed in 2005, well over half (59%) had been offered cannabis. Almost one third (29%) had access to ecstasy and around one in five (18%) had been offered cocaine. 5% of the young people had access to or had seen someone using heroin.
  • Of those who had been offered cannabis, over three quarters (77%) went on to use it. If given the opportunity to try ecstasy or cocaine the level of uptake was around 40%.
  • By the age of 16, nearly half (47%) of the young people surveyed reported having used cannabis. 40% of 16 year olds had used cannabis in the last year.
  • Almost all cohort members had tried alcohol by age 16 (93%) and most had drunk alcohol in the last month (88%). Two thirds (66%) of young people had been drunk at some stage in the last year.


  • There are many similarities in male and female use and by the time they reach age 14/15, the nature, extent and pattern of their use is largely comparable.
  • There is concern surrounding the sustained levels of smoking and drunkenness in girls and the policy implications these have for public health.
  • The BYDS data adds empirical support to the notion of a ‘ladette’ culture in Northern Ireland and the increasing alcohol use among young women.
  • There is also an increase in girls’ use of Ecstasy and stimulants including cocaine which warrants further examination.

Frequency of drug use

  • One in five young people smoked on a daily basis by age 14. This equates to only one third of those who had tried tobacco. One third of those who drank alcohol got drunk at least weekly (15% of the total sample). Around 7% of the cohort were frequent users of cannabis (at least weekly use), equating to 27% of cannabis users. The frequent use of other drugs such as ecstasy or solvents was very rare (less than 1% in both cases).
  • Regular users were more likely to have a risk taking personality; get into trouble at school and to commit serious offences such as burglary, theft or robbery. Not surprisingly, regular drug users are more likely to report drug related heath and social problems. It is out of this group of young people that we are likely to see the emergence of cases with drug dependency.

Drug related problems

  • In 2003 around one in ten young people met the criteria for alcohol or drug abuse used in the US National Survey of Drugs and Health (9.5%). This figure is roughly in line with estimates for comparable US research. Boys are more likely to be classified as at risk of abuse than girls, although the difference is slight (10% vs. 8%). The slight differences observed in the levels of abuse are due to differences in the level of weekly alcohol and drug use amongst boys and girls (54% vs. 46%) rather than differences in the proportion of weekly users who report a problem at home or at school due to their substance use (53% of weekly male users vs. 57% of weekly female users).

Contact with the Criminal Justice System.

  • In 2003 almost a third of the young people reported being in trouble with the police (31%), although only 9% reported being arrested. Over one in ten claimed to have been given a formal warning at a police station, and 3% indicated that they had actually appeared in court. Young males were two to three times more likely to have had contact with the Criminal Justice System than young girls. As the seriousness of the contact increases so did the gender differential. There was a clear association between drug use and contact with the Criminal Justice System. Over half of those young people who had tried an illicit drug had also reported being in trouble with the police (56%) compared with one fifth of nonusers (20%). In relation to more serious drugs (i.e. any drugs excluding cannabis or solvents) the figure increases to 64%. Around one in every 14 (7%) of drug users reported having been in court. In contrast, the figure was less than 1% for non-users.

Cannabis as a precursor to other drugs.

  • Of those who had tried cannabis (and had no contact with other drugs) in 2001, 38% were offered other drugs within the next 12 months. Of those that had no contact with any illicit drug in 2001 only 15% were offered other drugs (excluding cannabis) within the next 12 months. This would suggest that cannabis users have greater exposure and access to other drugs than non-cannabis users. Of the early cannabis users almost two thirds try other drugs when offered. This compares to around one third of the non-cannabis user group. This analysis is a further clarification of the role cannabis plays in the progression to more serious forms of drug use.