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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.

This survey 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.

Several recent 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.

Anonymous questionnaires 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 behaviour.

(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.



The survey 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.

Respondents 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.

The survey 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.

Checks and 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,.

Whether respondents 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.

The larger 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.

There were 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).

The sampling 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.

Percentages given in the text have usually been rounded to 0.5%.

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