Cocaine and sangria

We just happened to be in Barcelona last June 18th, when a front-page headline in El Pais (a Spanish national daily paper) proclaimed “Los jÓvenes españoles acceden a las drogas antes que los europeos ” (Young Spaniards start using drugs earlier than other Europeans).

A stupefying piece of information

The front page of the daily was referring to an official report revealing that 10 % of Spanish adolescents, but above all, 41 % of 15 to 29 year-olds, had already taken cocaine. These figures were taken from a major survey on youth, drugs and night life in Spain. How-ever surprised they may be at the extent of the problem, readers who are unfamiliar with quantitative data on drug use will probably not realize how surprising and improbable this information really is. To understand, one has simply to refer to the epidemiological data published annually by the European monitoring center of drugs and drug addiction (EMCDDA) : at the close of the nineties, cocaine consumption among 15 to 34 year-olds was comprised between 0.3 % and 5.2 %, depending on the country, for experimenting (life long prevalence) and between 0.2 % and 2.7 % for use over the last twelve months1. We are far from those 41 %, even if Spain does have the highest prevalence figures in both categories. Furthermore, a search on the site of the Spanish drugs observatory, the Plan Nacional Sobre Drogas (PNSD), tells us that there has not been any major change in cocaine consumption, with the exception of a slight rise among young people in recent years.

In 1996, for school-attending 15-16 year-olds, Spain was near the top of the list for prevalence of cocaine use within the lifetime (2.5 %), but behind Ireland (4.3 %), Italy and the UK (3.0 %). The PNSD was also able to provide data for 1998, upping that prevalence to 4.3 % (4.8 % for 14 -18 year-olds), but not to the point of reaching the 10 % announced by El Pais, which would make Spain rank first in Europe, by a long shot (for the sake of comparison, in 1999, less than 2 % of French 14 to 18 year-olds had experimented with cocaine2 ).

An olé olé survey

The key to the mystery lies partly in the El Pais paper, but it is well hidden. The survey on which the analysis is based is neither a survey of a representative sample of the overall population, nor a survey of school-attenders, but a method of observation recommended by Calafat et al. (1998), based on “key informers in the night life world”3 . The survey was conducted in Madrid, Bilbao, Palma de Majorque, Valencia and Vigo. In each of these five cities, eleven informers, selected for their familiarity with the local night life, were asked to develop the questionnaire, define a typology of young night revelers and do interviews in key places. Four types of party-makers were defined (the very young, the visible, youths in crisis situations and the afters), and 260 individuals of each type were questioned in each of the five cities. Not only is this obviously not a representative sample of Spanish youth, as the big headlines in the press would have it, but it is not even a representative sample of young people who go out at night. For, although the five cities included in the study may be viewed as particularly given to “partying” (Palma de Majorque is a tourist haven and Vigo’s long history of smuggling of all sorts makes it a good place to obtain drugs), readers with experience with Spanish partying will be surprised not to hear anything about Seville, and - more surprising still - Barcelona. However urban-centered, this study is not exhaustively so. Moreover, the advance definition of types, although defined by connoisseurs, implicitly prejudges the results and the prevalences found in the end, to say nothing of the selection bias. What we have here, then, is more a comprehensive approach or an ethnographic study, quite instructive at that4 , provided it is not attired with the role of measuring the extent of use within the entire population. The reproach that may be made to the El Pais article, then, is that it grossly exaggerated the traits, and kept us panting all the time we translated it and did the necessary checking, but all the same, we recognize it did have the elegance to present the main elements of the method.

François Beck and Cristina Diaz-Gomez
January 2001


1. Extended annual report on the state of the drugs problem in the European Union, 1999, EMCDDA.

2. Beck F., Choquet M., Hassler C., Ledoux S., Peretti-Watel P., Consommation de substances psychoactives chez les 14-18 ans scolarisés : premiers résultats de l’enquête ESPAD 1999, évolution 1993-1999, Tendances, OFDT, n° 6, 2000.

3. Calafat et al., Characteristics and social representation of ecstasy in Europe, 1998.

4. Especially for the study of factors connected with drug use and of the representations and perception of risks linked with substance use.

Penumbra, 2001 June