Publications & Reports

Moving on from representativeness: Testing the utility of the global drug survey.

Barratt MJ, Ferris JA, Zahnow R, Palamar JJ, Maier LJ, Winstock AR


A decline in response rates in traditional household surveys, combined with increased internet coverage and decreased research budgets, has resulted in increased attractiveness of web survey research designs based on purposive and voluntary opt-in sampling strategies. In the study of hidden or stigmatised behaviours, such as cannabis use, web survey methods are increasingly common. However, opt-in web surveys are often heavily criticised due to their lack of sampling frame and unknown representativeness. In this article, we outline the current state of the debate about the relevance of pursuing representativeness, the state of probability sampling methods, and the utility of non-probability, web survey methods especially for accessing hidden or minority populations. Our article has two aims: (1) to present a comprehensive description of the methodology we use at Global Drug Survey (GDS), an annual cross-sectional web survey and (2) to compare the age and sex distributions of cannabis users who voluntarily completed (a) a household survey or (b) a large web-based purposive survey (GDS), across three countries: Australia, the United States, and Switzerland. We find that within each set of country comparisons, the demographic distributions among recent cannabis users are broadly similar, demonstrating that the age and sex distributions of those who volunteer to be surveyed are not vastly different between these non-probability and probability methods. We conclude that opt-in web surveys of hard-to-reach populations are an efficient way of gaining in-depth understanding of stigmatised behaviours and are appropriate, as long as they are not used to estimate drug use prevalence of the general population.

Link to publisher’s web site


  • Journal: Substance Abuse
  • Published: 30/06/2017
  • Volume: 11
  • Pagination: 1178221817716391