Coping with the stress and anxiety of quarantine, historic job losses and a potentially deadly virus tends to be the prevailing narrative in news media explaining widespread reported increases in drug use during the COVID-19 crisis.
But the desire to “have fun” was the highest reported reason for taking drugs in the first four weeks of the outbreak among more than 1,600 respondents (mostly men, and mostly from the US and the UK) to a recent survey conducted by Drugs and Me, a harm reduction social enterprise. The data captured are non-probabilistic, meaning that it cannot be used to make conclusions about everyone, though it can help flag trends for further exploration.
“*Surprisingly*,” writes Drugs and Me co-founder Ivan Ezquerra-Romano in a June 6 blog post about the preliminary results, with a dash of sarcasm, “most people take drugs to have fun and relax, which everyone (including us) consistently finds when asking this question in surveys.”
Having fun was reported by 71 percent of respondents, the largest proportion for any one reason. The next highest (64 percent) was “to relax/night out,” another motivation that would seem to be more about pleasure than stress.
Academic research tends to ignore the role of pleasure and fun in drug use, as Filter contributors have flagged. But other data suggest that enjoyable drug experiences are more common than not. The 2019 Global Drug Survey, for example, found a 70-30 split between enjoying and regretting getting drunk, respectively. Of note, though, people with riskier drinking habits reported regret twice as often as low-risk drinkers.
Drug use for the self-medication of negative feelings may be cause for concern, and such motivations were represented in the Drugs and Me preliminary findings. Although more than half reported that they were not self-medicating, the 700 that said they were cited anxiety-reduction (66 percent) and depression-alleviation (62 percent) as driving factors.
“Self-medication can be very empowering but it can also go very wrong (which is why we go to the doctor),” wrote Ezquerra-Romano. “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).”
The widespread reported increases in drug use during the COVID-19 crisis have sparked media conversations about whether the uptick is problematic. While some, like Filter contributor Katharine Neill Harris Peele, would caution against jumping to conclusions about long-term addiction rates, immediate harms are making themselves clear. At least 34 states have seen reports of spikes in overdoses, the American Medical Association found.
The Drug and Me survey responses seemed to have been recorded prior to the global reckoning with anti-Black police violence by way of the Black Lives Matter uprisings. Investigation of the role of pleasurable and self-medicating use among Black people amid the dual crises of COVID-19 and extrajudicial murders facing their communities is surely necessary to understand the nuances of how, in the words of Ezquerra-Romano, the “pandemic has fundamentally changed people’s relationship with recreational drugs.”