Underestimation of Drug Use: A Perennial Problem with Implications for Policy

by Olivia Maynard

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Photo by Louie Castro-Garcia on Unsplash

In a paper recently published in the journal Addiction, Hannah Charles and colleagues suggest that the prevalence of illicit drug use among 23-25 year olds in a Bristol-based birth cohort (ALSPAC) is over twice that reported in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW). The team propose that these figures reflect under-reporting in the CSEW, although they note that they may reflect higher levels of illicit drug use in Bristol. Here I present some preliminary data supporting their view that the CSEW underestimates illicit drug use.

In March 2020, I recruited 683 UK university students to participate in a short survey on drug use via the online survey platform Prolific which has been shown to produce reliable data. I recruited only students aged 18 to 24 years who reported using alcohol in the past 30 days, and participants reported whether they had used any of MDMA/ecstasy, cocaine or cannabis in the past two years.

Table 1. Prevalence of self-reported illicit drug use across three surveys of young people in the UK

via ProlificAged 18-24
Bristol, ALSPAC

Aged 23-25


Aged 23-25

2 years 1 year Lifetime 1 year Lifetime
Any illicit drug usea 52.7 (360) 36.7 62.8 16.4 40.6
Cannabis 50.2 (343) 29.2 60.5 13.8 37.3
MDMA/ecstasy/amphetaminesb 23.3 (159) 17.0 32.9 3.6 11.1
Cocaine 21.1 (144) 19.6 30.8 4.8 13.9

Notes: Values represent percentage of participants (number of participants). Percentages for CSEW and ALSPAC are taken from Charles et al (1) and are weighted percentages.
a ‘Any illicit drug use’ refers only to the illicit drugs assessed in the respective surveys (only cannabis, MDMA and cocaine in our survey), more drugs in ALSPAC and CSEW – see Charles et al (1).
Our Prolific survey asked about ‘MDMA / ecstasy’ use, ALSPAC categorised ecstasy/MDMA use along with other ‘amphetamine’ use and CSEW asked about ‘ecstasy’ use.

Over half of my sample reported using at least one of cannabis, cocaine or MDMA in the past two years (Table 1). This is markedly higher than the CSEW’s estimates of either past year or lifetime use, and more in line with those reported in ALSPAC. Comparing across drugs, past two-year use of the three drugs is higher in my survey than either past year or lifetime use in the CSEW, and higher than past year, but lower than lifetime use in ALSPAC. Perhaps of more interest than ever use of the drugs over the past two years, I also examined the combinations of drugs students in my survey were using (Table 2). I find that the majority of students who report using illicit drugs have only used cannabis in the past two years (25% of all students), although the second largest group (15%) have used all three of cannabis, MDMA and cocaine.

Table 2. Prevalence of self-reported illicit drug among UK university students

Qualtrics survey of university students (past two years)
Illicit drug use 
Cannabis 50.2 (343) 48.5 (163) 53.5 (167) 37.1 (13)
MDMA / ecstasy 23.3 (159) 19.3 (65) 29.2 (91) 8.6 (3)
Cocaine 21.1 (144) 17.6 (59) 26 (81) 11.4 (4)
Illicit drug use profiles
Alcohol only (no illicit drug use) 47.3 (323) 48.2 (162) 44.6 (139) 62.9 (22)
Any illicit drug usea 52.7 (360) 51.8 (174) 55.4 (173) 37.1 (13)
Cannabis only 24.5 (167) 27.4 (92) 21.5 (67) 22.9 (8)
Cannabis + Cocaine + MDMA 15.4 (105) 11.3 (38) 20.8 (65) 5.7 (2)
Cannabis + MDMA 6.3 (43) 6 (20) 7.1 (22) 2.9 (1)
Cannabis + Cocaine 4.1 (28) 3.9 (13) 4.2 (13) 5.7 (2)
Cocaine only 0.9 (6) 1.2 (4) 0.6 (2) 0 (0)
MDMA only 0.9 (6) 0.9 (3) 1 (3) 0 (0)
Cocaine + MDMA 0.7 (5) 1.2 (4) 0.3 (1) 0 (0)

Notes: Values represent percentage of participants (number of participants).
‘Illicit drug use’ refers to participants reporting any use of the three drugs in the past two years.
‘Illicit drug use profiles’ refers to the combinations of drugs participants report using in the past two years.
a ‘Any illicit drug use’ refers only to use of cannabis, MDMA and cocaine.

There are some important differences between my sample and both the CSEW and ALSPAC samples. Some differences may mean that my figures are overestimates, including sampling university students who are more affluent than the general population (although drug use is not necessarily higher among students than non-students) and only including those who reported drinking alcohol (although according to the study authors, over 95% of the ALSPAC participants report past year drinking). Other differences may mean my figures are underestimates, including only asking about use of three drugs (thereby underestimating ‘any illicit drug use’), and the younger average age of my sample. I also report on past two-year use, rather than either lifetime or past year use as per CSEW and ALSPAC. Given these differences, I would like to run a larger, more representative sample on the Prolific platform (Prolific allows researchers to recruit a sample which is representative of the general population), to get an estimate of illicit drug use which is more comparable to ALSPAC and CSEW.

Despite these differences, my data support those reported by Charles and colleagues. Indeed, I find it unsurprising that illicit drug use is under-reported in the Home Office’s CSEW. The validity of self-reports for sensitive issues has long been a concern. Over-reporting of illicit drug use is not considered to be a concern and numerous methods have been developed for preventing under-reporting (see a 1997 NIDA report on this issue, as well as more recent techniques for estimating prevalence of use such as the crosswise method). It is important to consider the context in which surveys are administered, including participants’ perception of who is asking the questions and for what reason. It seems that if drug use is asked about in a research context, (e.g., with a clear research objective, informed consent and no possibility of repercussions), the validity of responses may be higher than when questions are asked by organisations that are perceived to be involved in the punishment of people who use drugs (e.g., governments, universities).

While the CSEW recognises that it does not reliably measure problematic drug use, my data and that of Charles and colleagues provide evidence that CSEW’s claim that it is a ‘good measure of recreational drug use’ may be wrong. Although it may be convenient to believe that only a small subset of the population uses illicit drugs, accurate information may galvanise policy makers (both nationally and locally, including at universities) into developing drugs policies that reflect reality and which support, rather than criminalise, the large proportion of the population who choose to use drugs. Indeed, this is what we’re doing at the University of Bristol, where it has been accepted that drug use is relatively common among our students and we’re providing support and education to those students who need it.


This blog posted was originally posted on the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group blog

Do development indicators underlie global variation in the number of young people injecting drugs?

Dr Lindsey Hines, Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow in The Centre for Academic Mental Health & the Integrative Epidemiology Unit, University of Bristol

Dr Adam Trickey, Senior Research Associate in Population Health Sciences, University of Bristol

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Injecting drug use is a global issue: around the world an estimated 15.6 million people inject psychoactive drugs. People who inject drugs tend to begin doing so in adolescence, and countries that have larger numbers of adolescents who inject drugs may be at risk of emerging epidemics of blood borne viruses unless they take urgent action. We mapped the global differences in the proportion of adolescents who inject drugs, but found that we may be missing the vital data we need to protect the lives of vulnerable young people. If we want to prevent HIV, hepatitis C, and overdose from sweeping through a new generation of adolescents we urgently need many countries to scale up harm reduction interventions, and to collect accurate which can inform public health and policy.

People who inject drugs are engaging in a behaviour that can expose them to multiple health risks such as addiction, blood-borne viruses, and overdose, and are often stigmatised. New generations of young people are still starting to inject drugs, and young people who inject drugs are often part of other vulnerable groups.

Much of the research into the causes of injecting drug use focuses on individual factors, but we wanted to explore the effect of global development on youth injecting. A recent systematic review showed wide country-level variation in the number of young people who comprise the population of people who inject drugs. By considering variation in countries, we hoped to be able to inform prevention and intervention efforts.

It’s important to note that effective interventions can reduce the harms of injecting drug use. Harm reduction programmes provide clean needles and syringes to reduce transmission of blood borne viruses. Opiate substitution therapy seeks to tackle the physical dependence on opiates that maintains injecting behaviour and has been shown to improve health outcomes.

What we did

Through a global systematic review and meta-analysis we aimed to find data on injecting drug use in published studies, public health and policy documents from every country. We used these data to estimate the global percentage of people who inject drugs that are aged 15-25 years old, and also estimated this for each region and country. We wanted to understand what might underlie variation in the number of young people in populations of people who inject drugs, and so we used data from the World Bank to identify markers of a country’s wealth, equality, and development.

What we found

Our study estimated that, globally, around a quarter of people who inject drugs are adolescents and young adults. Applied to the global population, we can estimate approximately 3·9 million young people inject drugs. As a global average, people start injecting drugs at 23 years old.

Estimated percentage of young people amongst those who inject drugs in each country

We found huge variation in the percentage of young people in each country’s population of people who inject drugs. Regionally, Eastern Europe had the highest proportion of young people amongst their populations who inject drugs, and the Middle Eastern and North African region had the lowest. In both Russia and the Philippines, over 50% of the people who inject drugs were aged 25 or under, and the average age of the populations of people who inject drugs was amongst the lowest observed.

Average age of the population of people who inject drugs in each country

In relation to global development indicators, people who inject drugs were younger in countries with lower wealth (indicated through Gross Domestic Product per capita) had been injecting drugs for a shorter time period. In rapidly urbanising countries (indicated through urbanisation growth rate) people were likely to start injecting drugs at later ages than people in countries with a slower current rate of urbanisation. We didn’t find any relationships between the age of people who inject drugs and a country’s youth unemployment, economic equality, or level provision of opiate substitution therapy.

However, many countries were missing data on injecting age and behaviours, or injecting drug use in general, which could affect these results.

What this means

1. The epidemic of injecting drug use is being maintained over time.

A large percentage of people who inject drugs are adolescents, meaning that a new generation are being exposed to the risks of injecting – and we found that this risk was especially high in less wealthy countries.

2. We need to scale up access to harm reduction interventions

There are highly punitive policies towards drug use in the countries with the largest numbers of young people in their populations of people who inject drugs. Since 2016, thousands of people who use drugs in the Philippines have died at the hands of the police. In contrast, Portugal has adopted a public health approach to drug use and addiction for decades, taking the radical step of taking people caught with drugs or personal use into addiction services rather than prisons. The rate of drug-related deaths and HIV infections in Portugal has since plummeted, as has the overall rate of drug use amongst young people: our data show that Portugal has a high average age for its population of people who inject drugs. If we do not want HIV, hepatitis C, and drug overdoses to sweep through a new generation of adolescents, we urgently need to see more countries adopting the approach pioneered by Portugal, and scaling up access to harm reduction interventions to the levels recommended by the WHO.

3. We need to think about population health, and especially mental health, alongside urban development.

Global development appears to be linked to injecting drug use, and the results suggest that countries with higher urbanisation growth are seeing new, older populations beginning to inject drugs. It may be that changes in environment are providing opportunities for injecting drug use that people hadn’t previously had. It’s estimated that almost 70% of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050, with most of this growth driven by low and middle-income countries.

4. We need to collect accurate data

Despite the health risks of injecting drug use, and the urgent need to reduce risks for new generations, our study has revealed a paucity of data monitoring this behaviour. Most concerning, we know the least about youth injecting drug use in low- and middle-income countries: areas likely to have the highest numbers of young people in their populations of people who inject drugs. Due to the stigma and the illicit nature of injecting drug use it is often under-studied, but by failing to collect accurate data to inform public health and policy we are risking the lives of vulnerable young people.

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Lindsey is funded by the Wellcome Trust.