In the UK, men are more likely to try drugs than women and they significantly outnumber women in accessing treatment, reinforcing the view that male drug use is the norm. But there are limitations with the way drug use is calculated and serious issues with women accessing treatment.
Drug policy and the allocation of budgets for drug prevention and treatment are informed by surveys such as the Crime Survey for England and Wales. The survey shows that twice as many men as women use drugs. However, the survey misses some key groups, such as homeless people and university students. The latter is particularly important as there are more young women in university than men.
Another important group not included in the survey are prisoners. Female offenders are more likely than their male counterparts to use drugs and to report needing help when they enter prison. As a result of these issues, the number of women who use drugs is probably massively underestimated.
Estimates of female drug use matter as we know that women use drugs not just for pleasure but to cope with difficult life circumstances, such as domestic abuse. There are clear links between experiencing abuse and trauma and having problems with drugs and alcohol. The connection between these issues is explored by the authors on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour.
Women are thought to progress more rapidly from starting to use drugs to the point where they develop problems, such as dependency – a phenomenon known as “telescoping”. Given this phenomenon, it is concerning that 11- to 15-year-old girls are more likely to drink alcohol or try cigarettes than young boys. Girls also match boys of the same age in their use of drugs.
This rapid journey into a problematic relationship with drugs could be a contributing factor to the significant rise in drug-related deaths among females. Drug-related deaths have risen for men and women over the last decade, but the sharpest rise has been for women. And this rise could be underestimated as coroners are less likely to investigate unnatural deaths in women, compared with men.
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