People Changed the Ways They Use Drugs During the Pandemic

December 8, 2021

The 2021 Global Drug Survey (GDS), the newly published report from the largest annual survey of people who use drugs, might be the most comprehensive look so far at how drug use has changed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many drug users adopted safer practices to prevent the spread the of disease, it found. And for some, the reasons why they used drugs in the first place also appeared to change.

This did not necessarily surprise Dr. Adam Winstock, a consultant psychiatrist, honorary clinical professor at University College London, and founder and director of GDS. “People who use drugs are not reckless human beings,” he told Filter. “And they changed some of the ways they use drugs, in order to reduce COVID transmission.”

Winstock, along with a handful of other researchers—like Dr. Larissa Maier of the University of California, San Francisco and Dr. Jason Ferris of the University of Queensland in Australia—culled data from more than 32,000 people in 22 countries.

The authors of the report asked respondents how often they adopted 10 practices seen as COVID-safe, on a five-point scale from “never” to “always”—both six months prior to the pandemic and in the nine months after its onset.

Globally, among people who used cannabis, the data revealed that the biggest shift was a marked decrease in sharing a joint, vape, pipe or bong with others (a 42 percent drop). Of the sample, 25 percent also shared their loose cannabis with other people less often, and 24 percent were more likely only to use joints, pipes and bongs “prepared by themselves.” Social distancing also increased (by 20 percent of the sample), and half of the people polled reported “some increases in COVID-safe cannabis practices during the time period.”

Overall, 55 percent of people were more likely to report safer practices when using cannabis during the pandemic, and 42 percent when using cocaine.

With cocaine, meanwhile, there was a 26.9 percent decrease in sharing a straw or snorter with another person; a 19.8 percent decrease in snorting a line racked up by another person; and a 19.7 percent decrease in rubbing or touching noses or lips after snorting a line. (People also cited some new reasons for why they regretted getting too intoxicated when drinking alcohol, including “hadnt drank for ages due to COVID restrictions,” “was at an online party,” and “feeling anxious about COVID or other stuff.”)

Overall, 55 percent of people were more likely to report safer practices when using cannabis during the pandemic, and 42 percent when using cocaine.

“Our findings suggest that while many people did not adjust their behaviors, where they did it was overwhelmingly in the direction of reducing risk, with bigger changes seen among those using cannabis than cocaine,” the report reads. “Whether sharing joints or straws will fade into history or return once COVID becomes less prominent in our lives,” the authors add, “we just don’t know.”

Additionally, as the Guardian reported, Winstock noted that as more and more people microdose with a host of psychedelic substances, many “were microdosing to self-medicate rather than following the trend, popularized in Silicon Valley, of consuming small amounts of psychedelics to enhance creativity.” About half of the people who were prescribed medication for their mental health indicated that microdosing had led them to either completely stop or reduce their prescribed medications—a shift, Winstock speculated, that might be “due to increased waiting times for mental health services during the pandemic.”

“Our data suggest that doctors need to encourage patients to disclose other approaches to improving their mental health so prescribers can advise accordingly,” the report reads. “GDS suspects microdosing may ultimately be easier to incorporate into mainstream psychiatric practice and more acceptable to patients than high dose assisted therapy that would require long periods under supervision and more training for staff.”

GDS is currently seeking anonymous responses to its 2022 survey.



Photograph by elsaolofsson/CBDOracle via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

Alex Norcia

Alex was formerly Filter’s news editor. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Los Angeles Times and the New Republic, among other outlets. He was also previously a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. He is currently based in Los Angeles.

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