Substance misuse


Content last reviewed: 8 November 2014

Drug and alcohol misuse is a complex issue. While the number of people with a serious issue is relatively small, their substance misuse and dependency affects everyone around them, including their families, friends, communities and society. 

While the substance misuse treatment system is well established both nationally and at a local level and has been successful around access and retention in treatment, continued attention is required to ensure a balanced range of interventions are being offered that will contribute to the improvement in the numbers of individuals who successfully complete treatment and maintain recovery.  People are more likely to complete their recovery if they have wider support to help them to rebuild their lives. These services include stable homes, employment and training prospects and involvement in meaningful activities.

Drugs and Alcohol is one of the five key priority areas for Public Health alongside obesity, smoking, HIV and sexual health, and mental health and well being.

The problem of illicit drug use has been one of the key concerns for society during the past 30 years. Many communities across England have experienced the debilitating effects of people using the most destructive substances, heroin and crack – crime, drug litter, the spread of blood-borne viruses, drug-related deaths.

Statistics show that illicit drug use nationally is falling. For example, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (1) (previously the British Crime Survey), has reported that the overall number of people who use drugs has fallen. While cannabis remains the most popular illicit substance by far, even its popularity has waned: whereas 11% of the population used it in 2001, this was down to just 7% in 2011. More importantly, the most recent prevalence figures estimate that heroin and crack use has fallen significantly in recent years: from a peak of 332,090 users in 2005-06 to 298,752 in 2010-11.

These reductions in drug use are mirrored by a fall in the number of people entering treatment for drug dependency. The number of new treatment starts for heroin and/or crack addiction (i.e. people completely new to treatment or those returning) was 64,288 in 2005-06, but 47,210 in 2011-12.

The number of heroin addicts who start treatment for the very first time has declined even more sharply, from 47,709 in 2005-06 to 9,249 in 2011-12. The 2010 Drug Strategy (2) makes clear the government’s aim to create a recovery system that focuses not only on getting people into treatment but into recovery, having overcome their dependence. 


(1)  Home Office, 2013. Drug Misuse: Findings from the 2012 to 2013 Crime Survey for England and Wales. London, Home Office

(2)  HM Government, Drug Strategy 2010, reducing demand, restricting supply, building recovery:  supporting people to live a drug free life.   



Last updated Friday, 22nd April 2016