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Illicit drug use among college students: the role of social norms and risk perceptions

Previous research has shown that illicit drug use among US college students has increased over the last two decades. The use of illicit drugs may lead to many different negative outcomes for college students. The current study looks at illicit substance use including cocaine, designer drugs, and nonmedical use of prescription stimulants and opioids in college students. The goal was to find how perceptions are related to previous use of the substances.

Researchers used data from the annual Student Health survey at a liberal arts college. The final sample included 1,345 undergraduate students with 81% female and 77% white.  Participants were asked about illicit drug use and drug use perceptions. These included statements like, “How often do you think the average student on campus uses ____?” and “How do you think your close friends feel about you using _____ regularly?” They asked control variable questions such as sexual orientation and alcohol dependence.  The data showed that non-prescription use of stimulants was most prevalent at 21% with cocaine use following at 13%. 97 of the students stated that they had used 2 substances in the past year and 28% of participants reported marijuana use in the past 30 days.

Researchers found that stimulants had the highest ratings among participants for descriptive norms, injunctive norms, perceived availability, and lowest risk perceptions for monthly use. Females were found to be more likely to use designer drugs and non-heterosexual students had slightly higher odds of non-prescription opioid use. Freshman students were least likely to use cocaine. GPA proved to be a protective factor use for all substance use except for opioid use. Higher injunctive norms (perceptions of peer approval) was associated with past year illicit drug use. Another finding was current marijuana use was correlated across substances. This research shows that drug prevention and intervention programs may benefit from targeting current marijuana users and that injunctive norms is the most important perception to focus on.

Take Away: The goal of the current study was to look at illicit substance use and find how perceptions are related to previous use of the substances. Participants included 1,345 undergraduate students who completed surveys asking about illicit drug use and drug use perceptions.  They found higher injunctive norms (perceptions of peer approval) was associated with past year illicit drug use and current marijuana use was correlated across substances. This research shows that drug prevention and intervention programs may benefit from targeting current marijuana users and that injunctive norms is the most important perception to focus on.

Kollath-Cattano, C., Hatteberg, S. J., & Kooper, A. (2020). Illicit drug use among college students: The role of social norms and risk perceptions. Addictive Behaviors, 105, 106289. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106289

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