Drug and alcohol use during coronavirus

Fascinating insights into changes in drug and alcohol taking behaviour during the global pandemic - interim findings from Global Drug Survey.

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Changes in binge drinking

The Global Drug Survey is the biggest drug survey in the world; last year more than 123,000 people from more than 30 countries completed the survey  including over 5,000 from the UK.

The survey is very different from research such as the Crime Survey for England and Wales because it is typically completed by regular, mainly recreational, drug users, most of them young and many of them well-educated.

The findings always  make fascinating reading and provide new data on new drug trends and crucial public health and policy issues. 

Currently the Global Drug Survey is running a special survey focusing on the impact of COVID-19. The survey runs until 20 June but the interim results (from the first 40,000 respondents – 1,300 of whom live in the UK) were published last week.

Here are some key findings  that I learnt from the interim report.

Alcohol

Coronavirus had a significant impact on respondents’ drinking habits. Only three out of ten (29.6%) drank on the same number of days in a typical week with more than a quarter (25.5%) drinking on less days – 13% decreased the days they drank a lot, and 12.5% decreased a little. By contrast almost half (44%) drank on more days with 30.5% increasing the days they drank a little and 13.5% increasing a lot. (In the UK a higher proportion of respondents increased the number of days they drank on – 20.6% increased them a lot and 35.1% a little).

Also in the UK, almost half (46.8%) respondents starting drinking earlier in the day during lockdown.

The overall findings re: alcohol consumption during coronavirus were:

  • 44.0% reported having increased their frequency of alcohol use during Covid-19. 23.8% reported a slight or big increase in binge drinking during Covid-19. However overall for those reporting an increase in frequency of binge use, 30.5% reported this was only slight & not a big deal to them. So while the frequency of alcohol use may have increased, not all of them drink more when they drink and it’s not a concern for a third of people.
  • The main reasons for increased drinking are that people have more time to drink and are feeling bored more often. About one third of respondents indicated they started drinking earlier than usual which fits into that narrative. Increases due to depression , worry and loneliness were also noted as were drinking more with their partner. One third of people who increased their use reported negative consequences on their physical health and one fifth said that their mental health, work/study performance, and/or pleasure was negatively impacted.
  • 25.5% reported having decreased their frequency of alcohol use during Covid-19 and even more (29.7%) reported a reduction in binge drinking. This shows an increasing alcohol consumption is not the norm as often portrayed by social media.
  • The main reasons for decreased drinking were less exposure to people and settings people usually drink with/in. More than one third reported improvements in physical health & finances. (see chart below for full details).
  • Overall, 42% of participants said they would like to drink less in the next 30 days.

Drugs

The survey results for cannabis use were varied with approximately two fifths respondents (40.4%) increasing their consumption, two fifths (38.2%) using the same and one fifth (21.4%) cutting down their use. Those respondents who increased their drug use gave eight main reasons:

Overall drug trends

  • Covid-19’s impact on the ability for drug cartels and dealing networks to import and distribute their products has been huge. From reduced air and sea freight and in some cases reduced access to precursors, it was always likely that after local reserves were depleted, changes in availability were likely to reduce access and impact on price and purity. While in some regions this has been the case, the true impacts of the reduction in supply have been buffered by possibly a parallel reduction in demand. For drugs where use alone is common and local production is available such as cannabis, use has increased, while for stimulant drugs such as cocaine and MDMA, the reduction in social gatherings has been protective. Overall, it seems that drug markets have been pretty robust and GDS predicts that following lockdown, many regions will be flooded by high purity drugs as dealers try to shift unsold stock and distribute stockpiles that had been prepared for the European summer.
  • GDS findings suggest that changes in drug use by individuals during Covid-19 lockdowns reflect both changes in availability as well as changes in the structure of each person’s day, especially where self-isolation removes people from social interaction typically associated with some types of drug use. For drugs like cannabis that many people use regularly regardless of social context, 40% reported an increase in use (compared to 20% reporting a decrease). Having more time on your hands and being bored appears to be the main reason, with secondary factors including addressing mood and worries.
  • For MDMA and cocaine, the importance of set and setting when using these drugs is evident. Both are typically used within social settings and for most people far less frequently than cannabis or alcohol. Overall, about 40% reported using less during Covid-19. The main reasons were being a direct function of lockdown with less opportunities to use and less contact with people who they use with. 40% cited not wanting to use these drugs at home and or during a pandemic. For neither drug was the reduction in use driven by reduced access.
  • Increases in benzodiazepine use can be viewed as a coping strategy and their use may compensate for access to other drugs. Their efficacy as a long term strategy for managing anxiety is poor, and misuse and dependence are a real concern, especially given withdrawal is protracted and potentially life-threatening.

Conclusion

The scale of the study (40,000 respondents at this stage) makes these findings important for those planning public health and substance misuse services and information both now and as lockdown is lifted around the world.

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