Social Distancing During COVID-19 Creates New Contexts for Drug Use
People have traded in nightclubs and dance festivals for virtual raves and Zoom happy hours as a result of lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic—yet, many are using drugs in these socially distanced settings, according to a new study by researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research at NYU School of Global Public Health.
The study, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, is the first to examine drug use during virtual raves and happy hours.
“We explored whether stay-at-home orders changed how people use drugs—and it appears that drug use during virtual gatherings is somewhat prevalent among the party-going population we studied,” said Joseph Palamar, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of population health at NYU Langone, an affiliated researcher with the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research at NYU School of Global Public Health, and the study’s lead author.
With government regulations to curb the spread of COVID-19 temporarily closing nightclubs and canceling large electronic dance music (EDM) festivals, some forms of nightlife have shifted to online platforms. At virtual raves, attendees experience live DJ performances broadcasted to thousands or even millions of people. For instance, Electric Daisy Carnival, the largest EDM festival in the U.S., held a virtual rave-a-thon featuring many popular DJs in May. Virtual happy hours are social gatherings at which alcohol may or may not be consumed, hosted using video conferencing platforms.
While nightlife settings are often associated with drug use, not much is known about whether drugs are also used in these newer virtual settings. To investigate, the NYU researchers conducted online surveys in April and May 2020 with 128 people who live in New York, attend EDM parties and reported recent drug use.
The researchers found that virtual raves and virtual happy hours are popular among these EDM partygoers: 55.5 percent of those surveyed attended virtual raves and 69.5 percent attended virtual happy hours during COVID-19 social distancing. Of those who participated in these virtual events, more than a third reported using illegal drugs during them, including 40.8 percent of virtual rave attendees and 33.7 percent of virtual happy hour attendees.
Alcohol was used by the majority of participants (70 percent) during both types of events, followed by marijuana, which was used by nearly 30 percent of participants. Other drugs were less prevalent: for virtual raves, the use of ecstasy, also known as MDMA and Molly (8.5 percent), LSD (7 percent), and cocaine (4.2 percent) were reported, while some virtual happy hour attendees used cocaine (3.4 percent) and ketamine (3.4 percent).
While drug prevention and harm reduction efforts have typically focused on clubs and parties, the researchers cite virtual events as an opportunity for outreach and education, given that substance use is also occurring in these settings.
“Although drug use may be considered ‘safer’ in a home environment, it may also introduce different risks, such as using alone,” said Palamar. “My main concern is potential adverse social effects of using drugs on camera because this could compromise one’s career. This applies to use of weed as well, because this can still compromise one’s relationship with an employer, even in 2020.”
Palamar notes that the rise of virtual raves and happy hours only tell one part of the story about how substance use has shifted during the pandemic.
“We’ve conducted another study, also on EDM partygoers, and we’re learning that the use of drugs, such as cocaine, ecstasy, and LSD, has been dropping since the COVID-19 lockdown,” said Palamar. “This shouldn’t be unexpected as many of these drugs are most commonly used in social and party settings, but social distancing measures have certainly changed drug use behaviors.”
Patricia Acosta of NYU Langone’s Department of Population Health co-authored the study appearing in the International Journal of Drug Policy. The research was supported by funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health (R01DA044207).
The mission of the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research (CDUHR) is to end the HIV and HCV epidemics in drug using populations and their communities by conducting transdisciplinary research and disseminating its findings to inform programmatic, policy, and grass roots initiatives at the local, state, national, and global levels. CDUHR is a Core Center of Excellence funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (Grant #P30 DA011041). It is the first center for the socio-behavioral study of substance use and HIV in the United States and is located at the NYU School of Global Public Health. For more information, visit www.cduhr.org.
About NYU Langone Health
NYU Langone Health is a world-class, patient-centered, integrated academic medical center, known for its excellence in clinical care, research, and education. Included in the 260+ locations throughout the New York area are six inpatient locations: Tisch Hospital, its flagship acute-care facility in Manhattan; Rusk Rehabilitation, ranked as one of the top 10 rehabilitation programs in the country; NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital, a dedicated inpatient orthopedic hospital in Manhattan with all musculoskeletal specialties ranked top 10 in the country; Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone, a comprehensive pediatric hospital, also in Manhattan, supporting a full array of children's health services; NYU Langone Hospital—Brooklyn, a full-service teaching hospital and level 1 trauma center located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; and NYU Winthrop Hospital, a full-service teaching hospital and level 1 trauma center located in Nassau County on Long Island. Also part of NYU Langone Health is the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center, a National Cancer Institute–designated comprehensive cancer center; NYU Grossman School of Medicine, which since 1841 has trained thousands of physicians and scientists who have helped to shape the course of medical history; and NYU Long Island School of Medicine. For more information, go to nyulangone.org, and interact with us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.
About NYU School of Global Public Health
At the NYU School of Global Public Health (NYU GPH), we are preparing the next generation of public health pioneers with the critical thinking skills, acumen, and entrepreneurial approaches necessary to reinvent the public health paradigm. Devoted to employing a nontraditional, interdisciplinary model, NYU GPH aims to improve health worldwide through a unique blend of global public health studies, research, and practice. The School is located in the heart of New York City and extends to NYU's global network on six continents. Innovation is at the core of our ambitious approach, thinking and teaching. For more, visit: http://publichealth.nyu.edu/