New report highlights new psychoactive substances in vulnerable groups in Scotland

The Scottish Government has published a new report looking at the use and trends of new psychoactive substances (NPS) amongst vulnerable groups living in Scotland.

The research, undertaken by Scottish Drugs Forum and The University of Glasgow, is the first of its kind in Scotland, and aimed to determine use across a range of people including people who inject drugs, mental health service users, vulnerable young people, people affected by homelessness and men who have sex with men.

The report, ‘Understanding the patterns of use, motives, and harms of New Psychoactive Substances in Scotland’ gathered information from people who worked in services and also people who used NPS. Part of this research was undertaken by SDF’s Peer Research Volunteers, people who have had their own history of substance use or who were otherwise peers of the target group.

The research covered motives for using NPS drugs, harms as a result of use, treatment experience, information needs and the impact of the Psychoactive Substances Act’s introduction in June 2016.

Katy MacLeod, who led on the research for Scottish Drugs Forum, said:

“NPS use amongst these groups is complex and results in a number of harms and specific treatment needs. This research is important because it provides a tentative first understanding of use amongst vulnerable groups, alongside motives and consequences of use amongst vulnerable groups in Scotland.”

Aileen Campbell, Minister for Public Health and Sport, said:

“We continue to tackle NPS on a range of fronts, and it is vital that we further our understanding of who is using new psychoactive substances and why, and what harms they are causing. These sub-stances can be extremely dangerous and we need to continue to develop new approaches to dis-courage people from taking them.

“There has been relatively little research done on this subject and that’s why the Scottish Government commissioned the Scottish Drugs Forum to do this report. The findings will improve our understanding of this issue and help us to ensure our drugs services are providing the right kind of advice and support.”

Key findings include –

Contact with services: 36% of all NPS users were not in contact with drug services at all for any issue.  However only 11% of NPS survey respondents reported being in contact with one or more services specifically in relation to their NPS use.

Provision of information and support: Sources of information on NPS consisted primarily of talking to family and friends (32%). 31% had not tried to source any information on NPS prior to use.  16% had talked to a drug service and 16% accessed information leaflets.  16% had obtained information on NPS from TV documentaries.  This low uptake of obtaining information from services was explained by a perception among those surveyed that in general workers knew little about NPS. This perception was borne out by services who felt that it was hard to ‘keep up to date’.

Patterns of use: Use of NPS was widespread in the survey sample with 59% of respondents reporting that they had ever used NPS, and 74% of those reporting having used NPS within the last six months.  The most commonly used NPS were synthetic cannabinoids (41%) and benzo-type NPS (41%) while approximately one fifth reported taking stimulant-type NPS (21%) and mephedrone (19%). Poly- substance use was very high. Only one person reported being a sole NPS user, with 99% of NPS users also reporting traditional drug use.

Motives: The key motives related to ease of access, curiosity and influence of peers, pleasure and lastly price and potency.  Legal status did not appear to be a key motivator for use.  Other specific motivations were associated with particular groups of respondents. For example, men who have sex with men were more likely to highlight improving sex as a key motivator for use. Those with a history of benzodiazepine use were more likely to highlight substitution from prescribed drugs as a key motivator for use.

Consequences of use: Across all NPS users who had used in last 6 months, 25% identified anxiety, 12% paranoia and 20% depression as key mental health harms.  There was also a significant impact reported on underlying mental health conditions and use of NPS to reduce mental health symptoms.

Summing up the findings of the research, Katy MacLeod said:

“Challenges for services include encouraging disclosure of NPS use and allocating resources to those requiring treatment for NPS use. Equally offering tailored information to people who use NPS from a range of vulnerable groups is important in order to reduce harm.

“With many factors likely to influence trends within NPS in Scotland, including the Psychoactive Substance Act, services will need to be vigilant around increased overdose risk for people who may move or return to traditional drug use.”

Aileen Campbell stated of the findings:

“This research also highlights the need to monitor the impact of the UK-wide Psychoactive Sub-stances Act. We are feeding into a 30-month review of the Act being led by the Home Office and will continue to support this work.”

David Liddell, CEO at Scottish Drugs Forum remarked:

“It is concerning that users in these very diverse, but potentially vulnerable, groups say that they need more information on the drugs they are using and this is reflected by staff who feel they do not have enough information.

“NPS are hardly new – there has been a significant level of use for almost a decade, although in recent years there has been an increased media focus on ‘designer drugs’ and ‘legal highs’.  Where this use is causing particular harms is amongst people who are marginalised and stigmatised and who may find it difficult to engage with services or find services difficult to access and maintain contact with.

“We do not necessarily need new services for people who use these drugs; rather we need more accessible services which cater for a wider range of drugs more generally”

Click here to download the report in full