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Whither RDS? An investigation of Respondent Driven Sampling as a method of recruiting mainstream marijuana users

Andrew D Hathaway1*, Elaine Hyshka2, Patricia G Erickson3, Mark Asbridge4, Serge Brochu5, Marie-Marthe Cousineau5, Cameron Duff6 and David Marsh7

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1G 2W1

2 Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth and Families, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

3 Department of Social, Prevention and Health Policy Research, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

4 Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

5 Centre International de Criminologie Comparee (CICC), University of Montreal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

6 Social Sciences and Health Research Unit, School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

7 Addiction Medicine, Vancouver Coastal Health, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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Harm Reduction Journal 2010, 7:15  doi:10.1186/1477-7517-7-15

Published: 9 July 2010



An important challenge in conducting social research of specific relevance to harm reduction programs is locating hidden populations of consumers of substances like cannabis who typically report few adverse or unwanted consequences of their use. Much of the deviant, pathologized perception of drug users is historically derived from, and empirically supported, by a research emphasis on gaining ready access to users in drug treatment or in prison populations with higher incidence of problems of dependence and misuse. Because they are less visible, responsible recreational users of illicit drugs have been more difficult to study.


This article investigates Respondent Driven Sampling (RDS) as a method of recruiting experienced marijuana users representative of users in the general population. Based on sampling conducted in a multi-city study (Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver), and compared to samples gathered using other research methods, we assess the strengths and weaknesses of RDS recruitment as a means of gaining access to illicit substance users who experience few harmful consequences of their use. Demographic characteristics of the sample in Toronto are compared with those of users in a recent household survey and a pilot study of Toronto where the latter utilized nonrandom self-selection of respondents.


A modified approach to RDS was necessary to attain the target sample size in all four cities (i.e., 40 'users' from each site). The final sample in Toronto was largely similar, however, to marijuana users in a random household survey that was carried out in the same city. Whereas well-educated, married, whites and females in the survey were all somewhat overrepresented, the two samples, overall, were more alike than different with respect to economic status and employment. Furthermore, comparison with a self-selected sample suggests that (even modified) RDS recruitment is a cost-effective way of gathering respondents who are more representative of users in the general population than nonrandom methods of recruitment ordinarily produce.


Research on marijuana use, and other forms of drug use hidden in the general population of adults, is important for informing and extending harm reduction beyond its current emphasis on 'at-risk' populations. Expanding harm reduction in a normalizing context, through innovative research on users often overlooked, further challenges assumptions about reducing harm through prohibition of drug use and urges consideration of alternative policies such as decriminalization and legal regulation.