Monitoring new psychoactive substances: Exploring the contribution of an online discussion forum

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Citation:
International Journal of Drug Policy, 2019
Issue Date:
2019-01-01
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© 2019 Elsevier B.V. Background: The rapid emergence of new psychoactive substances (NPS) is a challenge for public health authorities and law enforcement. The phenomenon is strengthened since the increase of the Internet usage. Not only used to trade NPS, the Web is an important source of information for both potential drug consumers and experienced users. Discussion forums are among these sources of information. They are meeting points for different groups of users and include a wide range of trip reports, questions and consumption tips. Since the discussions are archived over a long period, they can be used to monitor the interest of consumers for particular substances over time. This research aims at understanding the contribution of data extracted from a major online discussion forum within a systematic monitoring process. Method: Data were collected from a discussion forum (i.e. Drugs-forum). Within the sections of the forum, the titles, content of discussion, number of replies, and the date of the first discussion were crawled and stored in a dedicated database. The intensity of the discussions related to 42 substances considered as NPS was measured through an indicator allowing to assess the popularity of substances. Furthermore, the appearance of 15 substances on the forum was compared to the date of formal notification to the EU early warning system. Results: An evolution of the different classes of substances, as well as an evolution of specific substances within a class were highlighted. Some substances were discussed for a long period of time (e.g. Kratom, 25i-NBOMe, MDPV) while others were discussed very briefly (e.g. 5-MeO-DPT, NM-2AI). Out of the fifteen substances subjected to a risk assessment from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), nine of them appeared on the forum before or at the same time as their first date of notification to the EU early warning system. Conclusion: In line with previous research on doping products, this article shows the potential of the monitoring of online forums in the context of psychoactive substances. Besides, the system designed to collect the data is flexible and can be systematically updated to fuel a monitoring process. It informs not only on the presence/absence of a substance in discussions between consumers, but also on its evolution over time. Such results could benefit academic research and organizations studying the NPS phenomenon. Precisely, it could complement existing early warning systems and benefit law enforcement agencies and policy makers.
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