"You're stuck on a desert island and there's magic mushrooms, weed, coke and MDMA, which of these would you give up for a new drug?" asks Dr Adam Winstock, Consultant Addiction Psychiatrist and founder of the world's largest survey of drug use, the Global Drug Survey.
The 2015 survey was completed by over 100,000 recreational drug users -- people like you and me, perhaps, who occasionally ingest illicit substances for pleasure, and actually make up the single biggest group of drug users on the planet. The 2016 survey -- conducted in partnership with The Guardian and The Huffington Post -- launched online this week. Dr. Winstock continues his mission to not only offer the most credible source of drug use trends in the world, but also to educate the drug using population about the substances they are taking in a meaningful, relevant and useful way.
Back to the imaginary desert island brimming with narcotics. Dr Winstock believes that most people will stick with the drugs they know (the magic mushrooms, weed, coke and MDMA) because they offer a far more pleasant experience than the novel synthetic concoctions that have appeared in the past decade.
"Watching global news reels and Vicedocumentaries showing street users in major cities festering like ghetto kids in the favelas," he explains. "I am starting to think that the fake pot products may finally have found their resting place in the market place - at the bottom."
Winstock is of course talking about herbal smoking mixtures with brand names such as Blueberry Kush, K2 or Spice that can often be bought totally legally. For the third year running, the Global Drug Survey found that these synthetic cannabinoids were more likely to leave consumers needing Emergency Medical Treatment (EMT) than any other group of drugs it considered (although hard drugs such as heroin, meth and crack fall outside of its remit).
In 2015, 3.5% of synthetic cannabinoid users found themselves seeking EMT, rising to a staggering 12.5% of those that have used it 100 or more times in the year -- a risk 30 times higher than the corresponding figure for actual cannabis users. "As a general rule, the cheaper the drug the more risky it is," Dr. Winstock concludes.
One of the most important findings of 2015 was that most consumers don't choose these synthetics because they're legal and they think they're safe -- although that is often how it is reported in the press. No, they choose them because they're dirt cheap. Most people, if provided with a platter of options and bottomless pockets of money, would chose to take the most enjoyable drug with the least unpleasant side effects. But that's often an impossibility. People that like to get high are not idiots, however some of them are poor and some of them are desperate.
Other synthetic psychoactives, pills, powders, and "research chemicals" with branded names like Mexedrone, M&M and Sparkle are intended to approximate the effects of outlawed substances. Luckily, consumption of these often dangerous synthetics is on the decline in the UK, from over 20% in 2012 to 8.6% in 2015 according to Global Drug Survey data.
Because the UK is once again awash with high quality MDMA and even cocaine, if you're willing to pay a premium.
In 2015, cocaine is still the most expensive drug around, gram for gram. What's changed, however, is that it's increasingly being sold through a two-tier marketplace of lower and higher quality. In Britain, the average cost of a lower-quality gram is £52.43 ($80.23) and of a higher-quality gram £75.82 ($116.02). But with increased purity comes increased risk; it's easier to accidentally take too much of a purer product than a weaker one. As Dr. Winstock explains, "Better quality drugs can cause more harm that rubbish ones, especially if you don't know what you're taking."
Increased purity is a trend across the drug spectrum. Today, the average cost of an ecstasy pill is £8.79 ($13.45), however these are stronger than ever. The percentage of users seeking EMT has risen year-on-year from 0.3% in 2013, to 0.9% in 2015.
Pills in 2015 sometimes contain in excess of 200mg or even 300mg of MDMA which is, respectively, twice and thrice the recommended dosage to take in one go. Vice editor Thijs Roes -- who interviewed some of the Dutch manufacturers of ecstasy that supply the world market -- explains, "What they're doing is basically a pissing contest.
One told me it was a competition between manufacturers and a race against themselves. The other described his 330mg pill as a flagship product, as a way to get known in the scene."
Worryingly, the British take a greater mean dosage of MDMA on a night out than anyone else in the world (the mean dosage worldwide is 250mg, whereas us Brits are racking up 420mg a night). "The British still do binging and excess really well -- they don't do moderation," observes Dr. Winstock.
"There's something around Britishness that equates more with better, and that's the dialogue that needs to change. More drugs does not equal a better night. It's actually about the right amount of drugs for you, taken in the right way, at the right time, in the right place."
The 2015 Global Drug Survey also highlighted that the way we take drugs is transforming. When it first arrived on the scene in the late 80s, MDMA was a raving drug, but youth culture is constantly changing. Today, there aren't as many hedonistic clubs as there once were.
Today, you are just as likely to pop a pill at a house party or on the sofa with a loved one than you are on a dancefloor. The same is true with cocaine, maybe even more so. Today, way too many trips to the pub descend into staying up until dawn sniffing lines unhappily in somebody's living room.
Dr. Winstock reflects on this trend: "Drug-taking in 2015 has become to some people an end in and of itself, so getting wrecked is the purpose of drug-taking. I miss the flavor of the 80s and early 90s club scene, where drug use was used to enhance the environment. But often today getting battered seems to be the goal, and I'm not sure how you can challenge that…"
By Dean Kissick - Vice/Nov. 19, 2015
Photo: Chris Warren, flickr