A Qualitative Study of Nonmedical Prescription Drug Use

2008 – 2012
Principal Investigator: Sheigla Murphy, PhD
Project Director: Paloma Sales, PhD
Supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R01 DA023086)

Nonmedical prescription drug use is an increasing problem among young adults and college students. This 36-month project will conduct a qualitative study of nonmedical prescription drug use in San Francisco. Employing ethnographic sampling techniques, we will recruit 120 participants between the ages of 18 and 25 (60 men and 60 women) who have used one or more drugs from three drug groups (opiates, stimulants, and central nervous system [CNS] depressants) for nonmedical purposes at least 12 times in the six months prior to interview.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this study design was the problem of the diversity of nonmedical prescription drugs used and the combinations in which they and other drugs are consumed. We expect that our study participants will use, in varying combinations, alcohol, marijuana, club drugs, and prescription drugs. Our own and others’ previous work indicate these drugs represent the predominant drugs of abuse among nonmedical prescription drug users in the targeted age group. We also know that most of these drugs are used in combination (e.g., amphetamines and marijuana, valium/cocaine and alcohol) and that the kinds of drugs that are consumed together change over time. Since so little is known about the nature of nonmedical prescription drug use, we need the flexibility of broad drug groupings that our research will help to clarify. This study is not intended to provide a representative sample of San Francisco’s nonmedical prescription drug users but to provide initial understandings about their beliefs, motivations and perceptions of the consequences of nonmedical prescription drug use.

By limiting the scope of our investigation to young nonmedical prescription drug users, we will address a current gap in the extant literature regarding factors underlying the association between nonmedical prescription drug use and adverse health, behavioral and social consequences. Specifically, we are examining the types of drugs and combinations of drugs used; the relationship between the prescribed medication, the indication for which the medication was prescribed (e.g., pain, sleep disorder, anxiety disorder, attention deficit, obesity), and the role of individual factors and social settings that contribute to abuse; other sources for prescription drugs; the role of the Internet for information and drug procurement; drug-involved experiences; and the possible gender differences in the way prescription drugs are acquired, combined with other drugs and the adverse consequences experienced.

This qualitative research project will provide much needed information about the nature of nonmedical prescription drug use among young adults. Specifically, this project would provide information regarding the impact of nonmedical prescription drug use on relationships, lifestyles, as well as health and social consequences of use. Findings from this proposed study would aid in the development of effective prevention and treatment interventions for nonmedical prescription drug abusers and contribute to the improvement of integrated health care and drug treatment services.