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World’s Biggest Drug-Use Survey Goes Live


Opioid epidemic, painkillers and drug abuse concept with close up on a bottle of prescription drugs and hydrocodone pills falling out of it on white

South Africans are invited to take part in the internationally respected Global Drug Survey (GDS), which looks at people’s recreational drug use – from alcohol and tobacco to cannabis and ecstasy.

The 2020 edition of the survey went live on Wednesday.

More than 750,000 people from 35 countries have taken part in the annual survey in the past eight years, making it the world’s biggest drug-use survey. The 2018 edition was the first time South Africans took part in the research. For the 2019 survey, only 294 responses were registered from South Africa, out of more than 100,000.

Questions include, “How many times did you get drunk in the past 12 months?” and “How many times did you regret getting drunk?”

Psychiatrist and addiction expert Prof Adam Winstock, director of the survey, believes that the “experience of people who use alcohol and other drugs can be used to inform the creation of better drug policy while helping people use drugs more safely, regardless of the legal status of the drug”. 

More than 50 peer-reviewed academic papers have been published based on the data and findings of this survey, covering major public health and scientific issues.

The global drug survey is encrypted and doesn’t collect IP addresses, so all responses are anonymous and confidential.

While the GDS has lacked South African data, the latest report by the SA Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (Sacendu) in April 2019, based on data from specialist treatment centres in all nine provinces, showed that overall, alcohol remained the “dominant substance of abuse … and still causes the biggest burden of harm in terms of both communicable and non-communicable diseases”.

Alcohol was listed as the primary drug by between 15% and 35% of patients in treatment.

“Cannabis is still the most common illicit drug used, especially among youth attending specialist treatment centres,” reported the lead authors, Siphokazi Dada and Dr Nadine Harker Burnhams from the SA Medical Research Centre’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit.

“Across sites, between 33% and 50% of patients attending specialist treatment centres had cannabis as their primary or secondary drug of use,” they noted.

​In the Western Cape, the pattern was different to other provinces, with methamphetamine the most common primary drug reported by patients.

Heroin, mostly smoked, was a “problem across most sites”. In the Western Cape its use was rising, from 7% to 13% during the reporting period.

Cocaine, CAT (methcathinone), nyaope/whoonga (a mixture of cannabis and heroin), over-the-counter and prescription drugs, and club drugs were also listed as substances of abuse in the report.

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