VICE: An Interview with the Man Behind the Global Drug Survey

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Dr. Adam Winstock, drug (survey) overlord

This post originally appeared on VICE UK

The largest drugs survey in the world went live last week—if you like putting drugs into your veins, mouth or ass, I suggest you fill the survey in now (it’s, obviously, anonymous). And it’s kind of important, too—in recent years, the Global Drug Survey has tracked MDMA use (on the up), cocaine quality (most cocaine is terrible), and the best way to get all weeded up on weed (opinions differ, but you can’t go too far wrong with the real thing). I gave the survey’s founder and director Dr Adam Winstock a call to discuss his key findings, insights and some of the most interesting facts revealed in his mass of data from recent years.

VICE: Hi Adam, how is this year’s survey going?
Dr Adam Winstock: We’re at thirty-odd thousand after a week, so it’s pretty good. This is going to be our best year yet: We got nearly 80,000 respondents last year and this time we’re aiming at 120,000.

Nice. Last year, 22.1 percent of people said they bought drugs online, 44.1 percent of those for the first time that year. Why are people increasingly going online for their drugs?
​It’s three-fold: for better drugs, for a better selection of drugs, and to avoid sketchy dealers. People are just making informed decisions.

Question is, do people buy more drugs online? If they’re impulse buying, that’s not good. For sure, some people’s baskets are filling up with random shit I bet they did not plan on buying before they logged in. We hope to answer that concern this time.

According to your data, online drug markets have been growing pretty much exponentially since about 2008. How long until my friendly neighborhood dealer starts feeling his livelihood affected?
​Well, in the face of competition, your dealer might just stop selling shitty products and improve their service. But it’s like anything, like video shops and phone shops, some things survive and some don’t.

You might also reasonably ask; how long until your dealer starts selling you things he or she bought online?

 

11 percent of people said that they had taken a mystery white powder last year, are you surprised?
​It was particularly common in the UK—only 4 percent in the USA. Some of the media seem amazed by this, but most people do it when already intoxicated and they mainly thought it was cocaine, K, or mephedrone in hindsight.

Also, because criminals supply drugs, there are very often mystery powders, even when you think you know what they are. We’ve been hearing quite a few rumors of dealers selling research chemicals mixed with benzocaine as cocaine, say. That could cause a lot of problems.

A drug. A rock of drug. A drug crystal

 

The UK has a problem with booze, doesn’t it?
​A big problem. ​We spoke about this last time you interviewe​d me, and in the last survey we learnt that 7 percent of UK respondents were either probably dependent drinkers, or at risk of becoming dependent. Amazingly, 34.5 percent of those thought they drank an average or below average amount.

More people in the UK and Ireland have turned up to work hungover in the last month than anywhere in the world. Much more. In Ireland it was nearly 50 percent.

It might be our culture, or it might be that alcohol’s unique status as a legal mind-altering social substance creates a false sense of security around it. Both considerations probably contribute to the phenomenon.

 

More people have admitted in previously years to smoking weed than those admitting to smoking tobacco or drinking energy drinks. But you’ve also shown how people seem to smoke weed differently in different nations. Whose got it right?
​When it comes to weed, you could say the US are the most enlightened. Much less mixing with tobacco than anywhere else in the world: 7 percent vs. 80 percent globally.

That said, I’m surprised there isn’t any mandatory harm reduction advice in the states that have legalized. Also, they’re smoking a lot of butane and hash oil in the US—there’s still a lot to learn about that stuff.

Your data confirms that vaporizers are on the rise, what do you think about them?
​Vaping obviously reduces the harms to lungs, but it might leave some users thinking using cannabis is now risk free. It might reduce one risk, but all the others remain—especially for the young, the chronic daily users and those with mental illness.

 

Why are some people still smoking synthetic pot when we know the real thing is so much safer?
​Yeah, 2.9 percent in the UK and 6.8 percent in NZ are smoking synthetics. For some who use them it’s about beating sniffer dogs and piss-tests. Dogs simply aren’t trained to detect this stuff yet and many tests can’t pick it up. Consider festivals, prisons, transport and the military.

There are different compounds out there, and some of them are hundreds of times more potent at the cannabis receptors than THC. They’re easy to package up and distribute, but we’ve found you’re thirty times more likely to seek ER treatment on synthetics, and 93 percent say they prefer the real thing. They say it’s a better high.

For some it will be about access—good weed is way overpriced in the UK and synthetics are really potent. And the dealers and shops are pushing it because they make a huge profit. A couple of grams of ‘SC’ powder sprayed onto a kilo of herbal ‘fluffage’—they’re laughing! My main worry is that some people are getting dependent on them, and the withdrawal might be nasty, so we’re exploring that this this year.

So I took the survey and you asked me if I was a veggie. What’s that about?
​It started with a hunch, and I think we’ve just discovered something significant. Being a vegetarian might increase your risk if you use “balloons,” nitrous oxide—or “hippy crack,” if you read the Sun.

It’s been documented that nitrous oxide inactivates vitamin B12, which is important for the way your nerves function and if you don’t have enough of it you can develop something called a peripheral neuropathy.

Vegetarians often don’t get much B12 because it’s mainly found in animal protein. The main symptom is numbness and tingling in the fingers and feet, it can be really painful. Last year some people were doing 50 to a 100 balloons a day and 2 to 4 percent of users last year reported some of these symptoms.

So we’re exploring this issue even more rigorously and the message needs to get out—if you’re a veggie, you may need to be a little bit more careful with balloons and take supplements.

 

Last year more respondents claimed to have used MDMA than energy drinks—is use of MDMA going up?
​I think it is, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It has partly been driven by a fall in the use of other chemicals in many countries, as governments move to criminalize “research” chemicals. The price and quality of MDMA has also gone up and people are expressing a preference for crystal over pills as it’s easier to titrate.

More and better quality MDMA may have led to an increased risk of harm. Yet only about 0.3 to 0.9 percent of last year MDMA users reported seeking emergency treatment, more than any other of the “traditional” drugs but less than new chemicals, which was 3 to 4 percent of last years’ users, depending on the country.

A marijuana cigarette

For the last couple of years cocaine was voted as the worst value for money of any drug in the world?
​Yep, pretty much everywhere—though people in mainland Europe were more satisfied that in the UK. Purity is low unless you’re willing to pay through the nose. In most countries, we see a two-tiered drug market and that is extending from street level to ounce and kilo deals, particularly with cocaine. You get good coke and bad coke for different prices.

The survey is overwhelmingly white, and participants are self-nominating—not a random selection or cross section of society. How must we regard your results?
​That’s right. We can only hope to attain data from people who have access to the internet, but utilizing the internet is also exactly why we’re so huge. Our size and reach mean we pickup on new trends first.

Being self-nominating can actually help us reach understudied groups, the hidden masses for whom drug use has never been “problematic”—drug users who don’t find their way into treatment or the criminal justice system.

And yeah, about 90 percent the people who respond to the survey are white. That’s also because contrary to popular belief, white people actually appear to take the most drugs in many societies.

Take t​he survey here.

Follow Liam Deacon on ​Twitter

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