Losing your Drug Virginity

Professor Adam R Winstock

Founder & CEO, Global Drug Survey

Thinking of using cocaine, LSD or MDMA for the first time? Here’s what GDS2018 tells us about people’s very first experiences and how the risk of harm can be reduced.

People and especially governments don’t talk much about first time drug use. The hope and aim of most government’s policies is stop people from starting drug use in the first place. And that is, of course, is the best way to avoid drug related harm, not forgetting that the vast majority of adults in every country never try cocaine, LSD or MDMA.

If you can’t stop people from taking drugs, then the next best thing from a governments’ drug policy is to encourage people to delay first use until their brain has stopped developing. (In your early 20s is not a bad second aim.)  Grow your brain before you expand it. Beyond that, governments should focus on harm reduction and helping people who use drugs, to do so more safely. But most governments tend to ignore harm reduction for the masses and focus on those who inject or get caught up on the criminal justice system. 


From what GDS2018 can tell, the group who are almost entirely ignored are those people who may be on the verge of using a drug for the first time. Our data shows most people who tried cocaine, MDMA, or LSD had an inkling or knew for sure that they would try it one day. Only for a minority of users did the drug experience come as a surprise. And this should be reassuring to those worried that offering guidance to people about safer first-time drug use may encourage people to start using drugs and break the law. GDS is very clear that the only way to avoid drug related risk to zero is to not use drugs. This is the choice that the majority of people do in every population. As Release say ‘Nice People Take Drugs’ but taking drugs is still a minority activity.

Saying that, GDS is committed to helping people who use drugs to do so more safely, regardless of the legal status of the drug. So, we think it’s important to have honest conversations with people who may be thinking of taking drugs, so they can be prepared and aware.

If people knew more about what they were taking, how to take it and what to watch out for we believe they would be safer, especially on that very first occasion. 

Overall first-time users of LSD seemed to put in the most planning and be the most informed. But despite most people reporting being with good friends and taking advice about how to use for both LSD and MDMA, our findings showed that 0.5% of first time users of MDMA and 0.4% of LSD users sought emergency medical treatment following their first use. This confirms that a person’s first drug experience can be particularly risky. The risks are likely to be higher if you are on your own, take the wrong dose, are in the wrong place or time, or are already under the influence of something else – usually and probably most dangerously alcohol. 

To help inform honest discussion GDS2018 sought to explore the experiences of people who used cocaine, LSD and MDMA for the first time in the last 12 months. We asked people whether this first use was planned, about who they were with, how they were feeling, what they knew about the drug, how important peer influences were and whether their expectations (both positive and negative) were met.

3250 people completed the GDS2018 specialist section on their first use of LSD, 3500 completed the cocaine section and 4000 the LSD section. We have used our findings to create checklists for potential first-time users of these drugs (and their friends) and have created blogs for first time users, as well highlighting some key areas to think about.

Using drugs can be risky. We hope these checklists can be used to increase the awareness about potential risks of first time use in order to reduce negative outcomes.

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