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IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Margriet van Laar

Margriet van Laar
Netherlands’ Trimbos Institute

Nightlife in the spotlight

For many young people, taking drugs during a night out is no longer an exception. Researchers from 5 countries (Belgium, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) are to investigate the dynamic between nightlife and the use of drugs and other substances.

The project is being led by Margriet van Laar of the Netherlands’ Trimbos Institute. She has a great deal to say about her research project, mainly because it is a very multifaceted project, in terms both of methodology and of substance. ‘We are going to build a very large dataset using several fascinating techniques,’ she says.

Online and on the spot

For example, the idea is to survey 2000 young adults aged between 18 and 34 in each of the countries. 1500 will be recruited online, and a further 500 ‘on the spot’, in clubs and at electronic dance events. Apart from the fact that this in itself is a huge task, it will give an idea of how representative of the two methods are. What if one group gives entirely different answers from the other? ‘In our field we are increasingly using web-based questionnaires in research, for which respondents are recruited online, via Facebook and sites where people can find information about what’s on’, Van Laar explains. ‘It’s a fast and cost-effective method which allows you to gather date from a lot of respondents in a short time. However, this is a self-selecting group, and we do not know how representative it is. We can get an idea by comparing respondents in the two samples and their behaviour as regards going out and using substances. We can learn from that for future studies.’

An evening of fun

The idea behind the study is of course to gain more insight into young people’s use of substances when they go out, in order to tailor prevention, regulation and care to the situation on the ground. ‘But let’s be honest’, says Van Laar, ‘for a lot of young people these drugs simply make a night out more enjoyable. They are just having fun. The problem is that things sometimes get out of hand, and that’s what we need to prevent, particularly now that some drugs are becoming stronger and stronger, and new substances are constantly appearing on the market.’

Questions, questions, questions

The questions the subjects will be asked will not only refer to their current use of drugs. They will also be asked when they started using what substances. It is expected that most will have started with tobacco and alcohol. How have use patterns changed over time? Is it possible to identify high-risk groups? What are the implications for health and daily functioning? And of course the differences between countries will be examined. Is it true that ecstasy is increasingly used in the UK outside clubs and dance events? Are cocaine and amphetamines indeed the most commonly used drugs in Italy and Sweden, respectively, or is ecstasy on the rise there too? Can any trends be identified? And how do young people respond to stricter or more relaxed regulations? Do they circumvent them and, if so, how? An estimated half of the original respondents will be given the same questionnaire a year later to see if anything has changed in the meantime, and if an explanation can be found for any differences.


In Belgium and Sweden young adults interviewed on a night out will also be asked to blow into a balloon. This will allow the researchers to measure exactly what they have used, and whether it is consistent with their answers. ‘We know that self-reporting is not 100% reliable,’ says Van Laar. ‘As a rule, people tend to play down what they have taken. We suspect that this occurs mainly in countries with more repressive policies, where sanctions on use lead to social stigma or reduced career prospects. We are going to measure whether this is actually the case and how big the differences are. All kinds of international studies will be able to use the data. If, for example, we find that self-reporting leads to 10% under-reporting, that might have implications for other  studies.’

Tuesday dip

In both the UK and the Netherlands a follow-up study will explore the short term consequences of the use of ecstasy and other drugs, and whether the researchers can predict use on the basis of a range of individual characteristics, reasons for use and contextual variables. They will also ascertain precisely what substances club- and partygoers take during a night out, and in what order. Polysubstance use is an important risk factor in many health problems. Every day for five weeks, 150 young adults in each country will be asked about things like substance use, mood, level of concentration etc. via their mobile, and once every four hours on days when they go out. ‘If possible, we will also try to investigate  whether it is feasible to objectively monitor, via a mobile phone for example, whether the youngsters are sleeping, moving normally or exercising or dancing vigorously,’ Van Laar says. ‘We can for example look at whether there really is a “Tuesday dip” and how things change throughout the week.. This aspect will be a huge challenge, if only in terms of methodology.’

Fading borders

Finally, further qualitative research will be done on clubbing to put the other data into context. What is the club scene like in the five countries? Do clubs have a policy on drugs, and do they communicate it? Van Laar is so enthusiastic she is almost unstoppable once she starts talking about the project. ‘We have a fantastic team representing some very authoritative institutions. The international collaboration will help us gather a lot of information and build a big dataset. This will benefit every country, including the Netherlands. Borders are gradually fading, and what happens in one country today could be happening elsewhere in Europe tomorrow. It is also incredibly fascinating to work with all these different people, with all their different qualities.’

> More information on the funded projects in the first ERANID call for proposals 'Understanding drug use pathways'