Self-reported drug consumption patterns
and opinions of drugs
among 1333 regular cannabis users
M.J. Atha & S. Blanchard
There are a
large number of surveys conducted in the UK which seek
to estimate the prevalence of illicit drug use among the
general population, and among specific groups such as
schoolchildren. Very few studies have investigated how
often those people take drugs, the amounts used, how many
of those who experiment become regular consumers, or the
users" attitudes to drugs. This is such a study.
was conducted in the summer and autumn of 1994, at a time
when concern about the increase in drug usage, particularly
development of the dance/ ecstasy culture, and calls for
legalisation of drugs, particularly cannabis, were increasing,
as they have been ever since. Both sides of this debate
use misinformation, exaggeration of potential dangers
and/or benefits of use, and assumptions with a questionable
factual basis to advance their arguments. The authors
of this study do not seek to promote any particular approach,
but rather to enable policy makers to formulate drug policy
based on the best available information.
studies suggest that around 50% of 16-18 year olds have
experimented with drugs, although any assessment of the
extent of use is at best limited to recent use. Although
general population studies, such as the British Crime
Survey, attempt to assess prevalence of drug use, there
may be reluctance to admit illegal behaviour to any face-to-face
interviewer, or Government-sponsored questionnaire, despite
assurances as to confidentiality, particularly where a
name or address has been provided.
There is common
confusion between the use of cannabis and of the other
illegal drugs. It has been widely suggested, and equally
widely refuted, that one leads to the others. There is
also a wide range of opinion as to what levels of use,
if any, are "normal". In most studies of drug
use, "regular users" are defined as those who
take any drug once a week or more. The majority of respondents
to this survey were regular users. This study investigated
whether regular cannabis users are likely to take other
drugs, and if so which drugs, and whether they are likely
to continue taking them.
were used in order to avoid any potential tendency of
respondents to conceal or exaggerate the level of their
drug use. Alcohol users commonly underestimate their consumption
when asked directly, compared to the actual amount consumed
when recorded in a diary. While such a tendency may also
appear among cannabis users, as a typical purchase pattern
of cannabis would be a regular weight every few days or
weeks, self-assessment of cannabis use should be easier
than remembering numerous "pints in the pub".
The main aims
of this study were:
(a) To show
the patterns in which different drugs are used, and
to make an assessment of the consumption of these drugs
by assessing the average monthly costs of use.
(b) To describe
the patterns of cannabis use among regular users, including
how often it is used, how much is consumed, the methods
used, and the costs of such consumption.
(c) To investigate
the market in different types of cannabis, and to estimate
the potential size and value of different market sectors
from survey results and other indicators.
(d) To investigate
the attitudes to and experiences of different drugs
among cannabis users, and to what extent attitudes to
or experiences with drugs are related to their use.
(e) To assess
the driving records of cannabis users, to determine
whether or not they are more likely to cause road traffic
accidents than the general population.
(f) To assess
the impact of drug policy on users, the proportion of
regular users who have been arrested, and what effect,
if any, this may have on their attitudes to drugs and
levels of drug use.
(g) To investigate
any link between use of different drugs and criminal
(h) To investigate
the extent to which age, sex and other demographic variables
may influence drug use, and to assess the extent to
which different parts of the country or different types
of neighbourhood are associated with different levels
of drug use or drug prices.
This is not
a prevalence survey, and the results would not indicate
the prevalence of drug use in the general population,
or among those attending the event in question.
The study was
designed to assess quantitatively the levels of drug consumption,
particularly of cannabis, to assess the nature of the
cannabis market, and the relationship between drug use
and a range of demographic variables, and with other aspects
of drug-using behaviour. This study also included questions
on respondents" driving records, criminal convictions,,
cultivation of cannabis and attitudes to a range of drugs,
including different varieties of cannabis, the reasons
for using cannabis, health problems and/or benefits, and
the best and worst drug experiences of users.
was targeted at people who had "used cannabis or other
drugs at least once" and distributed so as obtain the
largest possible sample of regular drug users.
were asked to complete an anonymous questionnaire on both
sides of a single sheet of A4 paper (see appendix). The
design was kept straightforward and informal, asking respondents
to give numeric or very short written responses, to mark
multi-choice items, and to use a key (letters A-G) to
describe frequency of consumption. The questions covered
a number of demographic variables, the main identifiers
being age, sex, area of residence and occupation. There
were minor differences in some of the questions, with
other questions omitted, in some of the sub-samples. In
some cases the questions on cannabis prices were on a
separate sheet, to give an even greater degree of anonymity;
in others they were included on the main form. Each questionnaire
issued bore a unique serial number for determination of
source and response rates, and to allow identification
of any batches of additional questionnaires photocopied
and distributed by respondents in mini-snowball samples.
repeated the methods of a similar study from 1984, in
order to determine any changes in drug consumption of
cannabis users within a comparable sample population.
balances were built in to the survey design, in particular
"lie detector" questions involving a fictitious
drug "Bliss" and a fictitious variety of cannabis
"OT". Other questions were put in more than
one way, such as cannabis use, purchase and monthly cost,
as well as the number of joints smoked and rolled per
day, and average frequency of use as well as most recent
use of cannabis,.
had ever taken particular drugs was not asked directly,
but derived from the numbers of people who answered questions
on age of first use, frequency, and spending. The year
of first use of specific drugs was calculated by reference
to age in 1994 and age at first use of each drug. To analyse
frequency of drug use, respondents were allocated points
for each drug, from zero (non-use) to 4 (daily use). These
scores were aggregated to generate frequency indices for
all drugs, all legal drugs, all illegal drugs, and all
illegal drugs except cannabis. Market variables included
estimating the market share, prices, and subjective ratings
of different drugs, different cannabis varieties, and
different methods of use. Respondents were also asked
to "rate" the various drugs, and the different
varieties of cannabis. Other questions involved driving,
best and/or worst drug experiences, contact with the law,
and health problems and/or benefits.
The main study
was conducted in summer 1994 at a major pop festival.
A total of 2225 anonymous questionnaires were distributed
from a "Hemp Information" marquee in a prime location
in the middle of the festival site. The location was chosen
to attract users of drugs in a non-threatening environment.
The presentation and half of the questions were targeted
at cannabis, which is the most commonly used illicit drug
in the UK. To further improve compliance, the endorsement
of organisations sympathetic to drug users was obtained,
and prominently displayed on the questionnaire. Pens,
writing surfaces, and seating areas were available to
complete the questionnaires on the spot. Many respondents
took forms away and subsequently returned them to the
stall, or by post to a box number.
festival sample was supplemented by smaller samples obtained
from (a) postal returns from festivalgoers (b) snowball
samples in London, Oxfordshire, Merseyside and Scotland,
and (c) direct mailing to people connected with a pro-cannabis
lobby group, and subscribers to a pro-cannabis magazine.
1333 responses altogether, 1024 from the festival directly,
67 postal returns (total festival response rate 50% from
2200 forms distributed), 82 from snowball samples (response
rate not calculable due to photocopied forms), and 160
returns from direct mail (13% response rate).
method, while not representative of all illicit drug users,
nonetheless achieves a high proportion of regular and
daily cannabis users, in order to monitor frequency and
amount of consumption. Similar methods might be used to
target regular users of other drugs. As the heavier consumers
of any commodity account for a disproportionately large
percentage of all sales of that commodity (the Lorenz
distribution) it is possible to produce estimates of the
trends and prices in the cannabis market. Patterns and
levels of other drug use among some regular cannabis users
can be described in detail.
Data from the
questionnaires was coded into a Macintosh Computer using
Microsoft Excel. Data analysis was performed via Excel
and Statview/Graphics statistical package. Some variables
were recoded, to amalgamate frequency of use data and
source codes into broader categories, or to exclude rogue
data points well outside a reasonable range.
given in the text have usually been rounded to 0.5%.