Meet the Researcher Running the World's Largest Study of Drug Users

Dr. Adam Winstock's Global Drug Survey tracks the future of dopers.

The ways in which the world's drug-users consume, distribute, obtain, and abuse substances is in a state of transformation. Already, you may have more luck scoring higher quality gear online via Dark Net markets, than from dealers on the street. Though still illegal in most countries, psychedelics—LSD, DMT, psilocybin mushrooms—have dropped much of their stigma. Vaping everything from nicotine and cannabis via “pen;” inhaling methamphetamine fumes from a “pookie” pipe; or smoking heroin from aluminum foil––these ingestion methods are ever more common, and exercised by a diverse user-demographic.

A global shift in marijuana policy will have more people than ever smoking weed, and even engaging in cannabis tourism––traveling to weed-legal destinations to obtain legal marijuana. And, on a darker note, psychoactive substances have become increasingly more dangerous, and reach expanding numbers of chemical consumers.

Information about these trends in illicit drug development, distribution, and consumption can all be quantified: The Global Drug Survey (GDS) is one resource doing just that, offering valuable insight into the evolving drug trade. The survey is, in part, an effort toward harm reduction.

As KINDLAND has previously reported, the GDS receives anonymously submitted anecdotal reports, and other drug-experience-data from people all over the world. 

“If you’re someone who drinks, smokes weed, and does coke––the core survey will take you about 20 minutes," GDS founder Dr. Adam Winstock tells KINDLAND. "If you’ve been shopping on the Dark Net––maybe 25. If you’ve got a particular interest in medical cannabis, cannabis law, psychedelics, or drug-vaping––we’ve got four-to-five minute sections on each of these.”

This week, the call for data for the survey's 2017 release began in Australia, New Zealand, the United States. To learn more about the largest study of drug users on the planet, KINDLAND reached out to Dr. Adam Winstock.

KINDLAND: What, if any, changes will be made in how the 2017 survey collects data from users?

Dr. Adam Winstock: [In 2016,] we did our Safer Use Limits campaign for MDMA: “Don’t be daft, start with a half.” The campaign very much focused on MDMA-harm-reduction. The platform has changed this year, because there has historically been three big problems with the Global Drug Survey: One is, it’s too long. Two is, it was only ever designed to be filled in, on laptops and PCs. The third is, we didn’t have continuous data submission.

Generally, whenever you purify and distill a drug, and you come up with a more-potent preparation, you cause more problems. 

All of our work is approved through universities. In the past, we’ve always made sure that people consented at the beginning, and at the end. None of their data was submitted until they got to the end of the survey. Partly because, in some years, we had asked such intrusive personal questions. We’ve added a new platform, and you can do the survey on your phone, or tablet.

KINDLAND: How does the survey analyze cannabis use? Have marijuana concentrates changed the current landscape for users? 

Dr. Winstock: The United States has the most sensible cannabis users in the world. Only 7 percent of U.S cannabis users mix their [cannabis with] tobacco. It’s the lowest rate in the world. If you can remove tobacco from cannabis, if you can disassociate the two, if you can promote non-tobacco routes of administration at the public health level, that’s just huge. You can reduce levels of dependence, instances of cancer, chronic lung disease. Vaping devices in cannabis concentrates have nailed that. That’s not to say, it’s all good.

Generally, whenever you purify and distill a drug, and you come up with a more-potent preparation, you cause more problems. You turn coca leaves into powder cocaine, it will cause problems. Opium can cause you problems, but not as much as injecting heroin. Distillation, purification, and more rapid absorption of the drug tends to cause more problems. I think the world needs to understand that vaping of other drugs, which includes crystal meth and DMT, is potentially a huge danger. 

KINDLAND: How has the use of Dark Net markets evolved in the time since the previous survey was conducted? Are more people getting their drugs online?

Dr. Winstock: Every year, in most countries across the world, there has been a pickup in rates of Dark Net use. The two exceptions for that are Sweden and Portugal. In Sweden, there has been persistently high levels of Dark Net usage, because they have zero tolerance to drugs. Twenty-two percent of Swedish respondents have been on the Dark Net in the past year. Compare that to Portugal, where you can get drugs without fear of incrimination––and I think there is virtually zero interest in the Dark Net: Why would you go online to get drugs, if you can go down to the street corner and score some coke?

We ask what people do with the drugs they buy. I am certain there are street drug dealers who purchase their drugs on the Dark Net. That is the bit that’s really sad about that. But it cuts out the cartels. It cuts out the police. It brings quality to drug supply, and drug use. It’s an egalitarian dealing environment. But actually it’s not: The people who are most impoverished, most vulnerable, most marginalized by drugs, will be the least likely able to access Dark Net markets. You might have a couple of smart, low-class dealers buy some coke and heroin online, then chop it up and sell it on the streets.

KINDLAND: Do you see the larger idea of the Dark Net, or online drug markets, as something positive for drug users?

Dr. Winstock:  A bit like vaping, the technology of the Dark Net isn’t inherently good or evil. It’s about what you do with it, and who uses it. A third of people who used the DN had said that they had tried new drugs for the first time. This is not a surprise. It’s like shopping on Amazon. The whole idea there might be a marketplace that increases people’s exposure, the more drugs you take, generally the more likely you are to run into problems.

As a psychiatrist, I worry about people with severe mental illnesses taking ayahuasca.

Is increasing an individual’s repertoire of drugs they use a good thing? I’d have to say no. The more different types of drugs they take, the more likely they are to come across one that you don’t have fun with, or have a bad time with. It’s difficult really. 

KINDLAND: And psychedelics?

Dr. Adam Winstock:  The three things we’re looking at are: How often are people microdosing with LSD and [psilocybin] mushrooms? How do you go about microdosing? Do people think it works? We’re looking at how people’s use of psychedelics has changed through the ages. When you’re 20, and you’re doing magic mushrooms, you probably want a full-on surreal trip. You’ll want to meet pink and blue flying elephants. When you’re 60, you probably don’t want that. And what you’d probably do is, dose lower. You won’t be taking coke, or MDMA when you’re 60, but a little bit of LSD or magic mushrooms might brighten your party.

We’re looking at how people use ayahuasca, what their experience is, and what screening they are put through before they have the experience. As a psychiatrist, I worry about people with severe mental illnesses taking ayahuasca: They aren’t asked if they have any mental health problems, or if they’re taking any medications. That would be really reckless. We’re trying to highlight that difficult psychedelic experiences aren’t the same as a bad trip. What are the things about the psychedelic experience that make it difficult, and how do people manage those things––talking it through with their friends, going to the “healing tent,” listening to nice music. Negative or challenging experiences are really common with psychedelics. Most people come through them unscathed. [These experiences can be] transformative, growth-promoting. Bad trips per se are actually very uncommon. It’s those difficult experiences, which make psychedelics therapeutic.