Tracking Drug Use in a New and Smelly Way
Traditional drug surveys relied on questionnaires and data from a number of different organisations, but Norwegian scientists have found a better way to monitor a populations drug habits. Researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) found that, while people may lie about having taken drugs, their sewage cannot.
These brave scientists took samples of raw sewage from 19 European cities in order to compare the type of drugs being consumed and their levels. This produced the first ever comparison of drug habits between major cities.
Before this, scientists had to rely on inaccurate surveys, information from police, customs seizures and medical data. Since all this information came from different sources and there was no standard way of collecting it, it would have been impossible to compare two cities or even different times of year in the same city.
With this new system, all scientists will need is a sample of cities raw sewage and they will be able to analyse it for urinary biomarkers of cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy, methamphetamine and cannabis. The levels of these biomarkers will also indicate how popular a certain drug is in each location. By analysing samples from different days and times, the scientists are even able to see when each type of drugs is most often used.
In the current study, NIVA scientists found that in March 2011 cocaine use was highest in Western and Central Europe and lowest in Northern and Eastern Europe. Ecstasy was most popular among the Dutch in Antwerp and London. Helsinki Turku, Oslo and Budweis had the highest methamphetamine use and cannabis was a favourite throughout Europe.
Dr. Kevin Thomas, the NIVA Research Manager said this new information will be a great addiction to the current information available to researchers and governments.
"There will always be some uncertainty about the reliability of the results of questionnaire-based studies," he said. "Our research approach based on sewer samples of European cities however, yield very accurate and dependable results on the total amount of drugs used. Through sewer research, we can determine how big the drug market in a city is. We can also quickly measure changes in consumption over very short time, such as after a police raid or a customs seizure. Our approach is applicable anywhere. With the right financing we have the potential for the first time to better understand the hard facts about illicit drug use worldwide," Thomas said.