According to the 2014 UN World Drugs Report, 2.4 percent of Scots 16 years and older used cocaine over the past year, the highest percentage of any country in the world.
After the report was released at the end of June, news articles quickly appeared congratulating Scotland on its dubious new honor. "Cocaine Use in Scotland Highest in World, Ahead of US and Spain," read one. "Overall, Scotland sits top of the world cocaine league table," announced another. Medical Daily boldly declared Scotland the "New Cocaine Capital of the World."
Scotland, however, isn't so sure. Ashley Duff, a spokeswoman for the Scottish government, told VICE News that her government's data shows cocaine use in the country to be falling. And she says the idea that people might think Edinburgh is turning into some sort of neo-Medellin is causing "grave concerns."
Implying that Scotland is awash in cocaine is misleading at best. Kamran Niaz of the UNODC's Statistics and Surveys Section confirmed to VICE News that cocaine use among Scots 16 years and older is actually declining, dropping from 2.7 percent in 2008-2009 to 1.7 percent in 2012-2013. As a percentage of the adult population, he says Scotland's estimated 2.4 percent rate of use is essentially identical to that of the United States (2.3 percent), Spain (2.3 percent), Uruguay (2.1 percent), and Australia (2.1 percent). And with the exception of Uruguay, those countries have far more total cocaine users than Scotland.
'There's not some sort of single, global drug-use prevalence survey. There are different methods in different countries, with methodologies that can dramatically change.'
"The 2.4 percent prevalence for Scotland means that about 85,000 people had used cocaine in the past year," Niaz said. "The 2.3 percent prevalence in Spain corresponds to more than 700,000 people, and a 2.3 percent prevalence in the United States corresponds to 4.8 million cocaine users."
So, what of the suggestion by Scotland's STV News that one in 42 Scots uses cocaine? Epidemiologist and national drug abuse expert Jane Maxwell calls it "shaky data." Kamran Niaz takes pains to distance his office from this figure, calling it "a result of the journalist's own calculations and interpretation."
Researchers — though not most journalists — are well aware of the large distortions that commonly crop up in drug-use surveys, said James Hall, a drug abuse epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University's Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities.
"There's not some sort of single, global drug-use prevalence survey," Hall said. "There are different methods in different countries, with methodologies that can dramatically change — the circumstances under which the survey is conducted, the way the questions are phrased and asked, even the personality of the interviewer can have a big effect on the answers."
There are also inherent structural issues that make country-by-country drug use comparisons troublesome. James Anthony, a professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Michigan State University, said the "margin-of-error problem" makes him "completely skeptical about anything more than a tier-by-tier ranking," where nations would be grouped together in sets — such as bottom 25 percent or top 25 percent.
Even if we were to assume all estimates were 100 percent accurate, he says the margins of error for each ranking estimate are just "too large for that kind of certainty about Scotland or any other country." When you're comparing populations of such different sizes — Scotland's 5.2 million people to Spain's 47.2 million people to America's 313.9 million people — it's not difficult to see why.
When it comes to Scotland's "cocaine problem," context makes all the difference. Roger Halliday, Scotland's Chief Statistician, "regularly raised" concerns about the amount and quality of the data being collected for the UN report. In the end, a lack of context is at least partially responsible for headlines such as the one in the Scotsman that read, "Scots Drug Use Ruins Colombian Landscape."
But the media shouldn't shoulder all the blame for painting an incomplete picture of the world's drug habits. As always, good old institutional inertia played its usual role.
"I can confirm that the chief statistician gave his feedback to the UN suggesting the use of caveats [in the report]," Scottish government spokeswoman Holly Gilfether told VICE News. "However, these were not included."
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