June 6, 2020
How can we help?
For all of us at Drugs and Me this has always been the question driving our actions. Back when we were launching the website, we were a group of students who saw others using recreational drugs in rash and dangerous ways, sometimes getting away with it, sometimes not. When the pandemic started unfolding, we saw a lot of our efforts come crumbling down, which was disheartening, to say the least. It hit me quite hard but it forced me to sit down and think about what we’re doing and how we can provide new services to help the PWUD (people who use drugs) community. One of the things that I came up with (as did others!) was to launch a survey to measure the impact of COVID-19 on recreational drug use (and PWUD).
Making the survey
This isn’t the first time that we’ve done a survey, but it’s our most ambitious one yet. Currently, through NeuroSight (formerly ADEC), we collect data for organisations to help them improve how they deal with issues arising from recreational drug use, and push forward evidence-based interventions and policies. Check out our first ever survey, while we were all still students at UCL, fond memories!
This unprecedented situation is creating so many unknowns. I thought to myself, we have this expertise, let’s push ourselves and apply it in a new situation. So, as my life was falling apart around me, I worked around the clock to put together a survey to investigate how the pandemic is affecting people who use drugs. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my amazing team. It was great fun as well, we teamed up with Reagent Tests UK to give away some drug testing kits, and got some psychedelic artwork from Sam MacRae which is currently on its way to Texas!
Surveys are all nice and dandy, but research takes time to translate into action. So while we were working on that, Arthur and Maddie took the lead on creating new content about issues that we knew would be important. They collaborated with Nick Hickmott’s team from We Are With You to create a resource on withdrawal, pumped out in only a few weeks. And in May, we published our mental health guide, which had already been in the pipeline for a while, but couldn’t have come at a better time.
Many well-established organisations with full-time, senior employees also released surveys, which have garnered many responses (here’s a comprehensive list of studies). We don’t have the same kinds of resources as these organisations and all volunteer our spare time to do this work.
It turned out response has been amazing! Nearly 2000 responses from across the world (thanks Lithuania!) and great feedback, we’re very pleased.
I’m a baby scientist (aka a PhD student), so I’m still learning how to tame data, interpret it and base my decisions on it. This post only contains some interesting preliminary results that I wanted to share with you in advance of the full report.
Our data is non-probabilistic, so we can’t conclude our results apply to everyone but we can still search for trends in specific populations. However, in this blog post, we are reporting global results and we aren’t taking into account how the lockdown affected respondents. We had a total of 1616 usable responses, with respondents from all over the world (top 3: United Kingdom (867), USA (528) and Lithuania (234). 65% were male, 33% female and 2% other. Almost 80% were between 18 and 35 years old.
160 respondents had tried opioids. 4 in 10 people replied their opioid use had increased or greatly increased during the first 4 weeks of the outbreak.
From 1616 respondents that had tried drugs during the outbreak, 246 respondents had tried benzos. Half of these respondents said their benzos use had increased or greatly increased during the first 4 weeks of the outbreak. We now know that anti-anxiety medication prescriptions have gone up by 34% in the US, which fits our results.
From 1616 respondents that had tried drugs during the outbreak, 1315 respondents had tried cannabis. More than half of these respondents said their cannabis use had increased or greatly increased during the first 4 weeks of the outbreak. This is in agreement with our (and everyone’s) predictions and the increase in cannabis purchases in the legal and illegal markets.
Why are we taking recreational drugs?
We asked people the reasons why they are taking drugs during the lockdown. *Surprisingly*, most people take drugs to have fun and relax, which everyone (including us) consistently finds when asking this question in surveys. However, there’re a few things we find worrying. When we have asked this question before, reasons like ‘To cope with stress’ and ‘To escape reality’ appear at around 20%. However, in this survey, they appear at around 50%. If you are taking drugs for these reasons, it might be doing you good, but it has the potential to get out of control and be harmful. Check out our guide on mental health to learn more and get some useful tips.
Now, our most unexpected and surprising result…
We're still puzzled by this. My immediate reaction was to think there was something wrong with our question. Should we have defined ‘self-medication’? However, when reading the open-ended answers, I realised there wasn’t any issues with how you all understood the question. We also asked the reasons for self-medicating. The results of this question fit with the previous one about reasons to take recreational drugs. Essentially, the number of people who reported taking drugs to cope with stress is similar to the number of people who reported self-medicating to reduce anxiety. I haven’t checked whether they are exactly the same people, but I’m now more convinced the question did its job. Moreover, a large percentage of people have reported an increase in their use of drugs classically associated with self-medication: cannabis, benzos and opioids.
Unfortunately, we don’t have data on self-medication before the virus outbreak, and nor does anyone else! But this has big implications. This data suggests that this pandemic has fundamentally changed people’s relationship with recreational drugs, possibly for a very long time. Self-medication can be very empowering but it can also go very wrong (which is why we go to the doctor). So, we need to (and will) find out more about this, especially whether this ties in with increased negative outcomes (like more overdoses, worse mental health etc)
As soon as we closed the survey, I felt a large responsibility to immediately clean up and analyse the data. I organised an online talk hosted by the UCL Neuroscience Society very soon after to motivate myself (maybe a bit too soon but hey!). We’re used to working remotely, and hitched a ride on the Zoom train quite a while ago, but still, delivering an online talk was quite a novel experience. Still, it was great fun!
The full talk is here.
After a week of poring over the data all on my own, I was on the verge of burning out and had to step back for a few days. To be honest, I never expected to get so many respondents. Our sample size is still far from studies by other organisations, but it is a diverse and decent dataset to work with and learn from. We’re still slowly digesting the results and will be releasing a full report this summer.
What I’m really excited about, is publicly releasing the raw and cleaned datasets in my GitHub repository. We’re working on some academic papers, so if you are interested in publishing, please send me an email to email@example.com, so there aren’t people separately working on the same project.
Before the pandemic, we had started working on a software to reduce harm and help people manage their pleasures- a new digital solution for recreational drug use. Given the large percentage of people self-medicating with psychoactive drugs, we are now more keen to launch it for our community. We are adapting our plans with the software and some of its features based on the evidence. Do you want to know more? Want to help? Have any ideas of features a harm reduction software should have? Send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an unusual blog post for us and challenging for me to write. Not only is it about our own actual research but it was also an opportunity to get more personal and talk about our experience. The whole process has been very gratifying and I’ve learnt many lessons. I had the opportunity to work with team members that I don’t normally, like Julia who manages our social media.
What was really great though, was engaging more directly with the community. We’ve always taken a distanced and impersonal approach to our content but we’ve seen what you can bring to the equation and want to do more to make you a part of the solution. It was also really nice to see and hear from the source that our work is valued and needed. It was definitely worth putting the effort!
For instance, following our post on use of benzos during the pandemic, @jasper_thomas97 encouraged us to talk about the increased risk of developing pneumonia when using this same drug. He sent us links to academic papers, just the way we like it!
This post was created for informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. All drugs pose risks, and the best way to avoid them is not to take any, but we understand that people still choose to. Drugs and Me exists to provide you with information about drugs, helping to reduce their harms based on the best evidence available. Take a look at our various guides to find out how you can stay safe. If you like this post, make sure to share it on social media using the buttons below.
This post was written by Ivan Ezquerra-Romano. Ivan is one of the co-founders of Drugs and Me and Neurosight. When he’s not leading us through the fog, he hides out in the lab on his PhD exploring the perception of temperature. You can find him at @Ivan_EzqRom.
- Diamond A. Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology. 2013;64:135–168