The European Web Survey on Drugs: patterns of use of new psychoactive substances in Belgium
Background: While new psychoactive substances (NPS) have become a global phenomenon, epidemiological and qualitative knowledge remains very limited in Belgium. Such rapidly emerging trends cannot be easily monitored by means of the national Health Interview Survey in the general population because it is only held every five years. In addition, the questionnaire on substance use is limited and the number of people in the sample who have used substances other than cannabis is too low to permit further analyses. To provide in additional information on the patterns of use, EMCDDA’s European Web Survey on Drugs was conducted in Belgium by the Reitox national focal point at Sciensano between mid-November 2017 and the beginning of January 2018.
Methodology: The survey ran in Dutch, French, German and English. The applied self-selection sampling strategies included targeted advertising on social networking sites and sharing the web link through a variety of media from national network partners. Selection criteria were a minimum age of 18, living in Belgium and having used one or more of the drugs covered by the survey. Participation was anonymous and respondents could opt out at any stage in the questionnaire. Next to cannabis, cocaine, MDMA, amphetamine and methamphetamine, a specific module was available covering questions on the pattern and motivation of NPS use as well as the conditions of purchase.
Results: 23.4% (N=1024) of the total participants to the web survey indicated the use of NPS in the past 12 months. The specific NPS module had a response rate of 30.1% (N=317) and was predominantly filled out by young adults, age categories 18-24yrs (56.5%) and 25-34yrs (33.9%). A higher proportion of men (60.6%) than women took part and almost all of the respondents (99.1%) confirmed polydrug use. A minority of 7.3% indicated frequent NPS use, defined as at the least once a week.
In general, the most frequently mentioned substances were 2C-B (30.9%), mephedrone (15.5%) and 4-FA (11.0%). 17.0% of the respondents did not provide any specification on the type of NPS, while about 6.6% mentioned not to remember or to have known the name nor type of substance taken.
Primary motivations for using NPS, regardless of drug group, were curiosity (48.0%), availability (‘having the opportunity’, 45.7%) and simply liking the effects (36.9%). The assumed legal character of NPS was of importance to only a smaller group of respondents (17.4%). Naturally, the expected effects differ between the subtypes of NPS. A large proportion referred to partying (56.5%) and getting high (48.9%).
The most common way of acquiring NPS was through friends (49.5%) or a dealer (27.1%), while other means such as specialized shops (12,3%), online shops (11.3%) and encrypted internet market (8.9%) were mentioned to a much lesser extent.
Conclusions: NPS are prevalent on the regular drug market in Belgium and experimental use is established in recreational settings. Questioning of NPS use remains methodologically challenging due to the diversified groups of available NPS and therefore different related user profiles, as well as the limited common terminology among users.