Informing prevention through big data – The Global Drug Survey

This month’s blog post comes from Larissa Maier, who is voluntarily involved in the Global Drug Survey (GDS) besides her actual job, believing that this engagement can make a difference. In this blog post, she describes how she joined the GDS and shares the very first results from the GDS2017. She concludes with her view on how these results relate to global drug prevention. 

Most early career researchers start their careers by focusing on one main research question to become an expert in that specific area of research. In my case, my PhD studies addressed the prevalence and patterns of substance use for cognitive enhancement. However, after having developed a questionnaire on recreational drug use in Swiss nightlife settings as part of my master thesis, I remained connected to the Swiss projects aimed at early detection of harmful substance use. Having been a regular clubber myself back then, I could link my personal observations in the field to the data derived from the questionnaires. My knowledge about local and national drug use habits of recreational drug users increased sharply. A logical next step was joining the Global Drug Survey (GDS) to understand the superior picture and to put my findings into context. In this blog post, I will tell you more about how I became a member of the GDS Core Research Team and how our findings contribute to the prevention of harmful substance use among youth and adults across the world.

Recreational drug use and pleasure?

As adolescents, we heard many horrifying stories about the negative consequences of illicit drug use. However, I became soon aware that most people who use drugs recreationally do this for pleasure. Ten years ago, youth who used illicit drugs recreationally had to rely fully on their friends’ recommendation regarding drug of choice and dosage. At least in Europe, no one was ever asked to take part in a survey that included in-depth questions on illicit drug use, and people would not have been much in favor of sharing these experiences. This has changed. A more pronounced dialogue about the pleasure of and harms from recreational drug use has formed the public debate. This dialogue is mostly driven by surveys investigating the patterns of use of both licit and illicit drugs. While we were implementing the survey for recreational drug users who used a Swiss drug checking service or sought general drug information in 2011, Adam Winstock, a UK-based psychiatrist and lecturer, turned his Mixmag survey into the Global Drug Survey (GDS).

The origin of the Core Research Team of the Global Drug Survey

GDS runs the largest annual anonymous web survey of people who use licit and/or illicit psychoactive substances. GDS partners with global media organizations who help to promote the survey and share the findings with their readers. In 2013, the survey was first translated into German and I became involved. The following year, I visited Adam for an internship at King’s College in London, where I got to see behind the scenes of Global Drug Survey. Even though Adam was for sure annoyed by the many questions at the very beginning, he started to appreciate my critical feedback and eye for detail. When he then invited me to become a part of the Core Research Team in early 2015, I agreed – although I had never met the two Australian researchers of the team in person. From there on, I was not only responsible for the German translation and bits of the data analysis, but also for the planning and the implementation of the annual global survey.

The Global Drug Survey Core Research Team at the Club Health Conference in Dublin when launching the GDS2017 findings on May 24th 2017 – first time we had all the four of us together! From left to right: Jason A. Ferris, Monica J. Barratt, Larissa J. Maier & Adam R. Winstock (© Tim Bingham)

Getting bigger and better

With the support of our huge international network, the GDS2017 investigated the drug-taking habits of 120,000 people across 50 countries1 . Web surveys targeting hard-to-reach populations are an efficient way of gaining in-depth understanding of stigmatized behaviors, and are appropriate, as long as they are not used to estimate drug use prevalence of the general population2 . In particular, the GDS data is drawn from a population of self-selected respondents who are more likely to report experience with recreational drug use and can therefore complement national household surveys where this group is typically underrepresented. For example, for each country we specified the usual amount of cannabis used among users, the joints mixed with tobacco, the sources of purchase, the price, the rate of emergency medical treatment following the use, the intention to use less next year and to seek help and the preferred form of support (e.g., online). Moreover, GDS reached the highest number of people who use novel psychoactive substances (NPS) and purchase drugs via darknet markets and can thus be used to identify trends on the national level.

Prevention through honest conversation

GDS provides a unique opportunity to collect big data from people who use a variety of drugs mostly recreationally, in order to learn about specific use patterns and motives for use to accordingly develop prevention and intervention measures. By sharing our findings, we aim to make drug use safer, regardless of the legal status of the drugs by strengthening informed-decision making among users. For instance, the increasing purity of MDMA in ecstasy pills on the European market requires that users adapt safer use strategies such as using drug checking services whenever possible and starting with only half or even a quarter of a pill3To ensure our findings are accessible and useful to people who use drugs we offer a range of free harm reduction resources such as the GDS Highway Code4 or the Safer Use Limits5. Overall, I believe that the triangulation of data sources best represents the dynamic epidemiology of drug use patterns across the world and I want to call for an increased collaboration between researchers to enhance policy implications.

About the author: 

Dr. Larissa J. Maier is one of the four members of the Core Research Team of Global Drug Survey (GDS) aiming to make drug use safer, regardless of the legal status of the drug. Currently, she is appointed as a consultant in Drug Use Epidemiology at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Before, she has conducted significant addiction research studies at the Swiss Research Institute for Public Health and Addiction (ISGF) at the University of Zurich. In March 2015, she completed her doctoral degree at the University of Zurich in Psychology, where she specialized in Clinical and Health Psychology. Her research aims to understand why people use psychoactive substances and how to best prevent harmful use. Twitter: @maier_larissa. Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Larissa_Maier

Bibliography

  1. Further key findings of GDS2017 can be found here: https://www.globaldrugsurvey.com/wp-content/themes/globaldrugsurvey/results/GDS2017_key-findings-report_final.pdf []
  2. Our methods paper will soon be published in the journal Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment in a Special Issue on Emerging Topics and Innovative Methodologies in Cannabis Research: Barratt, M. J., Ferris, J. A., Zahnow, R., Palamar, J. J., Maier, L. J., Winstock, A. R. (2017). Moving on from representativeness: testing the utility of the Global Drug Survey. []
  3. http://mixmag.net/feature/were-launching-a-campaign-to-promote-safer-ecstasy-use []
  4. www.globaldrugsurvey.com/brand/the-highway-code/ []
  5. www.saferuselimits.co/ []

One thought on “Informing prevention through big data – The Global Drug Survey

  1. Thank you for this really interesting post Larissa and hello from a researcher working with GDS alcohol data in the wider academic network!
    I agree with you, we do need a more honest conversation about both the pleasures and harms associated with drug use. I look forward to the methods paper being published very soon. It tells an important story about the value of the GDS data and its ability to detect new trends in a substance using population
    Hope to meet you and chat soon

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