Cocaine and amphetamine type stimulants within the European prison systems

Research Period

1 May 2005 – 30 September 2006


Cranstoun Drug Services European Commission


Johanna VAN PELT

Key Words

Cocaïne, Crack, Amfetamine, Stimulantia, prison, Europe



Within the framework of the European Network for Drugs & Infections Prevention in Prison (ENDIPP), Cranstoun Drug Services has commissioned a research study on 'Crack-cocaine, cocaine and Amphetamine Type Stimulant (ATS) users within the European Prison Systems: legislation, policy and practices in 10 EU countries'.

The objectives are to provide an overview of legislation, policy and practice concerning services provided to stimulant users within the prison systems of 10 EU countries. Regarding practice, the study should in principle focus on knowledge, attitudes and perceptions of prisoners and prison officers, as well as of the administration and policy makers.


The study follows the European Network research methodology, i.e. a qualitative design, based on questionnaires and interviews with key actors, and focus groups with prisoners. The study shall also include literature review about services to stimulant users, as well as review of legislation and policy. One-week field visit shall be completed in each of the country investigated. To collect information about the specific countries and to arrange the field visits, the researchers will have the support in each of the countries of a 'national research contact'.

Summary of the Results

The study was conducted in Belgium, Czech Republic, Ireland, Lithuania, Malta (distant data collection), The Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden.

The research findings, supported by local studies suggest a general upward trend in stimulants use in prison, and more importantly a general increase in poly drug use and combined use of substances. Intravenous use of stimulants does occur in prisons, but these substances are also snorted, inhaled or swallowed, and the use patterns for these substances may be more irregular or even occasional (and in that sense less problematical). In the course of the research it became clear that the concepts or categories of the pure 'cocaine user' and the pure 'heroin' user loose part of their usefulness, as the phenomenon of poly drug use is widespread, and changes in the type of substance taken may occur as people enter prison and later again, as they re-enter society. Thus, there does not seem to be one homogenous subculture of cocaine users or amphetamine users in prison.

In the course of the study, the researchers came across almost no targeted interventions towards stimulant users in prison. When asked why there were so few targeted efforts towards these groups of users, conversations with interviewees almost immediately and for the greater part of the interview turned to the discussion of general barriers and problems that hinder the provision of services and harm reduction strategies in prison in general. Nevertheless, the most mentioned gap in provisions towards stimulant users was that 'the heroin-oriented strategies do not fit' and the need for strategies that surpass the basic medical or product-oriented approach. More than the need for medication, many prisoners expressed the need for more psychosocial services and options to talk about the psychological dependence, and the psychosocial aspects of their drug taking behaviour. The need for staff to be better trained in recognizing stimulant related problems, and in responding to these clearly emerged. In particular, professional capacities in the areas of prison management of acute stimulant intoxication; withdrawal management; pharmacotherapeutic interventions; and interventions for stimulant users with co-morbid psychiatric disorders, seemed very limited in the countries investigated by this research.

The research also found needs for specific, non-judgmental and useful general harm reduction material for prisoners, for example to increase knowledge on needle cleaning procedures, on methods of minimising 'comedown', on symptoms of withdrawal, the importance of sleep and good diet, the need to avoid dehydration, the dangers of combined use or poly-drug use, and for example upon release, to prevent overdoses. With regard to stimulants, it was absolutely clear that more specific product information on stimulants, both for security and treatment staff (to help them recognize these substances and assess drug problems) are urgent, together with clear guidelines and protocols on specific service delivery in prison.

Many of the interviewees contended that the presence of alternatives (such as work possibilities, training facilities, fitness and other leisure activities, and the presence of therapeutic programs (in drug free zones), are important alternatives for drug use. Prisoners who work, attend educational trainings, or have sufficient access to leisure facilities tend to be less interested in drugs.

As cocaine and Amphetamine Type Stimulant became more available in society, or as they became more popular among certain segments of the general population, it is highly likely that more incidents of cocaine or Amphetamine Type Stimulant seizures in prison will occur, and that larger proportions of the prison population will start using those substances occasionally or more regularly. It is thus imperative that appropriate response strategies are designed to contain, reduce and address these.

Valorisation: publications and lectures

  • DECORTE, T. (2007). Problemen en noden van stimulantiagebruikers in Europese gevangenissen, Panopticon, nr. 5.
  • DECORTE, T., SCHEIRS, V., VANDER ELST, D. & MUYS, M. (2007), Provisions for Amphetamine Type Stimulant users in European Prisons. Oldenburg : BIS-Verl. der Carl-von-Ossietzky-Universität.
  • DECORTE, T. (2007), Problems, needs and service provision related to stimulant use in European prisons. International Journal of Prisoner Health, 3(1), 1-14.
  • DECORTE, T. (2006), Provisions for cocaine and amphetamine type stimulant users in European prisons. Paper presented at the 9th European Conference on Drugs and Infections Prevention in prison, Ljubljana (Slovenië), 5-7 oktober 2006.
  • DECORTE, T. (2005), Meeting the challenges of cocaine users, Paper presented at the 8th European Conference on Drugs and Infections Prevention in prison: 'Unlocking potential: making prisons safe for everyone', Budapest (Hongarije), 7-9 juli 2005.