Young drug users: sociological study of one sample


The use of drugs has recently spread among wide sectors of the younger population in the majority of western countries. In the social context, this widespread use of drugs in universities and youth centres provides a very interesting opportunity to study deviant behaviour in society. Every human action must be understood- Verstehen is Max Weber's expression 1 -in accordance with its subjective meaning and in its context. Alfred Schutz rightly points out that what can be understood represents only approximately the "meaning intended by the actor" as perceived through indicators- Anzeichen2 -derived from the living experience of the subject. This living experience of the actor cannot be isolated from his personal history or from the social environment in which it acquires its full meaning. In accordance with this criterion, the use or abuse of drugs must also be investigated in its social context and an effort made to discover the significance which this behaviour can have for the subject.


Author: Eduardo BASELGA
Pages: 17 to 22
Creation Date: 1972/01/01

Young drug users: sociological study of one sample *

Ph.D. Eduardo BASELGA
Professor of Sociology, University of Deusto, Bilbao, Spain

The use of drugs has recently spread among wide sectors of the younger population in the majority of western countries. In the social context, this widespread use of drugs in universities and youth centres provides a very interesting opportunity to study deviant behaviour in society. Every human action must be understood- Verstehen is Max Weber's expression [ 1] -in accordance with its subjective meaning and in its context. Alfred Schutz rightly points out that what can be understood represents only approximately the "meaning intended by the actor" as perceived through indicators- Anzeichen [ 2] -derived from the living experience of the subject. This living experience of the actor cannot be isolated from his personal history or from the social environment in which it acquires its full meaning. In accordance with this criterion, the use or abuse of drugs must also be investigated in its social context and an effort made to discover the significance which this behaviour can have for the subject.

The present article summarizes the results obtained from the investigation of a group of young drug users. As will be seen, an attempt has been made to correlate the use of drugs with those factors which appear capable of affecting or influencing in any way this type of socially and legally penalized behaviour, and to place it in its psychological and social context.

The sample consisted of ninety-five cases checked by the police of a city, Madrid, from 1 January to 1 May 1971, all the subjects being under thirty-one. They were all drug users, whether traffickers or not. It is admitted from the outset that this sample does not substantially represent the general drug problem in Spain, and also that it may be somewhat slanted through excluding hardened heroin addicts. This is partly due to the provisions of Spanish law which authorize the administration of extra-therapeutic doses of narcotic drugs during detoxication treatment [ 3] , so that it is difficult to find in this type of sample any users of morphine or of other drugs classified as narcotic. The legal authorization neither includes nor excludes heroin, because this drug is hardly ever used in medicine, and persistent heroin addicts seem hardly ever to be cured. Moreover, though heroin is the drug normally preferred by persistent addicts it is not very often found in Spain, possibly because it is much too dear for the average Spanish pocket. Morphine addiction mostly starts with therapy, and affects persons over forty and women three times as often as men. None of these features occurs in the drug-addict population observed in recent years in most western countries. Although a study of the morphine problem is not without interest, it should not be confused with that of young drug users.

* The data presented in this article, the original of which is in Spanish, are covered in more detail by the author in a book published in 1972.

All these limitations mean that the sample is confined to smokers of marihuana or other derivatives of Cannabis sativa, and to a few consumers of amphetamines or other psychotropic substances in conjunction with alcohol. This new type of drug abuse had not been foreseen, since neither alcohol nor psychotropics are prohibited toxic substances. The combination appears to have effects similar to those of alkaloids derived from opium: first euphoria, then amnesic depression.

All the persons in the sample, except three who refused to co-operate, were subjected to one or more intensive interviews conducted with structured questionnaires. Their parents or closest relatives were also interviewed. They were visited in their own homes whenever possible, and an attempt was made to contact their friends whenever this seemed likely to make the position clearer.

(a) Description of the sample

The ratio of men to women was two to one and the age distribution was quite similar, as shown in table 1.

Although the difference in age between the two groups is only one year, there is a greater age spread among the women. The drug experience of the men seems to be more rigidly limited.

It is interesting here to consider not only the present average age of the subjects but also the average age at which they began to use drugs.


Average age of the persons included in the sample


Average age

Standard deviation

Maximum and minimum ages


21.2 2.95
20.2 3.61


Average age of initiation to drug use


Average age

Standard deviation

Maximum and minimum ages


18.7 2.35
18.2 2.03

aFour men and three women were unable to specify the age at which they used drugs for the first time.

Thus 86 per cent of the subjects began to use drugs before reaching the age of twenty. There is no appreciable difference in this respect between the sexes except at the maximum and minimum ages. Men are more precocious than women, whose average age of initiation is older by two years.

Although all the subjects lived in Madrid, only one-half (48 per cent) were born there. Most of the others came from sixteen provinces of Spain, a few from abroad.

As for occupation, most of both the men and the women were students and the rest were skilled workers of various types. All workers were classed as skilled, since none were unskilled.


Classification by occupation of the population in the sample (Percentage)




58 55
Skilled workers
32 34
Members of the forces
Drug traffickers
No occupation
- -
- -
  100 100
- -
- -
(62) (29)a

a One woman did not reply.

Social status

Since it was difficult to secure truthful and reliable information on this point, a number of convergent criteria were used:

  1. Statement of the subject or of his family;

  2. Occupation of the head of the family;

  3. Assessment by the interviewer, who endeavoured to gather evidence by observation or indirect enquiry concerning indicators of social status and living level.

With the aid of these data the cases were divided into nine categories which were later reduced to three broader and approximate ones. There were no cases of extreme poverty or wealth.

The second criterion had also to be simplified because of the diversity which became apparent. The subdivision into seven categories was made later, in an attempt to reflect more accurately social class as determined by occupation and living level rather than by prestige or income. The three criteria have been used to arrive at the figures in table 4.

The table shows that most of the subjects, both men and women, with only a very small difference between the sexes, belonged to the middle class. In the upper class the women outnumbered the men.

As for the influence of the occupation of the head of the family, there can be no doubt that in the cases investigated, those fathers who belonged to the liberal professions controlled their daughters better than their sons; whereas those classified as workers or shopkeepers appeared to do the opposite. The other differences were minor and may well be fortuitous.

With regard to the type of drugs most commonly used, the derivatives of Cannabis sativa seem to have the widest acceptance. Cannabis accounts for more than one-half.

It will be seen from the above table that even if all the psychotropic substances were grouped together they would have second place in the order of preference. The fact that barbiturates, depressants and some of the amphetamines are taken with alcohol suggests that this kind of "cocktail", which produces a combined euphoric and depressant effect, is used by these subjects as a substitute for morphine or heroin.

(b) Analysis of the data

Three types of influence appear most frequently in the analyses: personal problems, family problems, and problems connected with the social environment.

The population in the sample did not reveal any odd personality traits which would justify the classing of a subject as psychologically abnormal. Somewhat more than half the sample, both men and women, were students. They did not appear to have any financial problems, and nearly all exhibited personal characteristics very similar to those which appear to predominate in present-day Spain among wide sectors of young workers or students unaffected by drugs. There is evidence of abnormality in only a few isolated cases: three cases had a history of psychiatric treatment and two of unsuccessful suicide attempts, making five out of the total of ninety-two. The proportion of abnormal persons seems higher than in the total population of Spain; but it must be borne in mind that the figures for the total population are not comparable because they are based on different criteria. There exist no comparable data for all persons who have received psychiatric treatment in one form or another, but only for persons committed to treatment centres. None of the subjects in the sample had been an inmate of a centre. Nor are any data available relating to attempted suicide. This does not mean that no information was found to suggest the advisability of some form of psychiatric treatment; but the same would apply equally to a similar population that had never come into contact with drugs.


Classification by social class (or income) and occupation of head of family (Percentage)


Men Social class

Women Social class

Occupation of the head of family







Members of a liberal profession
8 13
  21 13   28  
    8     22
5 5   17    
Members of the forces
  11 5 5   5
    3   17  
13 50 37 22 51 27
  (100)   (100)    


Drugs used by the population in the sample (Percentage)

Banana peel
l. 22
Tea-leaves, smoked
l. 22
Dr. Andreu's cigarettes + alcohol
l. 22
Bustaid + alcohol
Barbiturates with alcohol
Depressions with alcohol
Amyl nitrate
44. 10

There is another factor which to some extent suggests an abnormal personality in the subjects: the kind of aspirations in life which they claimed to have. One can work on the logical assumption that a young person's decision as to his or her aspirations constitutes a self-definition. One half of the sample, regardless of age or sex, had no concrete aspirations in life. The level of education appeared to make some difference, particularly in men, a fact which suggests that the more years spent at school, the better one's own definition of the meaning and direction of life. The data for men yield the figures in table 6.

A distinct difference appears in the category "to settle down ". Those with more years of schooling have as a rule a clearer idea of how they wish to settle down, whereas those with less education tend to swell the ranks of persons uncertain of their aspirations.

This shows that insufficient schooling may be part of the reason why one-half or more of the young men of all ages who use drugs have no clearly-defined aspirations in life. This, however, is only part of the reason, since one-half of the educated young men also appear under the heading of unspecified aspirations. No comparable data exist to show how frequent is the absence of concrete aspirations among well-educated young men who are not drug users. If they could be shown to exhibit a much lower incidence of uncertainty in aspirations while all other factors remained the same, it would be possible to conclude that this difference was due in the others to a personality inclined towards drugs - a suitable conclusion for the present study.


Classification by number of years of schooling, and by aspirations, of the men in the sample (Percentage)

Men investigated

Years of schooling


8 or less

Over 8

67 51
To get married
6 2
To settle down a
18 40
To become a hippy
To form part of a musical group
To go abroad
100 100

a"To settle down" covers completing studies or securing a job.

Information should also be sought on family problems, the second type of possible influence on the psychology of drug users. The number of children per family was 3.2 in the sample, i.e. somewhat higher than the average for Spain, which is 2.8. In families with more than one child, the family rank of the subjects varied without showing any marked trends, though elder brothers were less common. It has also been suggested that bad relations between the father and the mother may degenerate into personal frustrations causing deviant behaviour in the children. The data showed that 68 per cent of the sample came from homes in which the relations between the father and the mother were good or excellent. Some 18 per cent came from broken homes, the remainder from homes which were not broken but had problems. Similarly at another level, that of the relations between parents and children, which were studied both separately and jointly, no significant difference became apparent. These relations were classified under several headings, ultimately reduced to five: authoritarian, protective, tolerant, comradely and neglectful. The tolerant attitude prevailed; some subjects came into the authoritarian, protective and neglectful classes, but none into that of comradeship.

There are no comparable data of parent-child relations concerning young persons in Spain not involved in the drug problem. Nevertheless, it may be concluded that the families of the young persons investigated did not reveal any special abnormalities. Neither the number of children, nor the subject's family rank, nor the relations between the parents provided any evidence that the family structure determined the subject's social deviation. A tolerant attitude of parents towards their children may be a factor of some importance, since, if the attitudes of the father and of the mother towards their children are taken together, tolerance prevailed in 68 per cent of the cases (69 per cent for sons and 66 per cent for daughters). Nevertheless, it did not prevail over all and may be assumed not to be peculiar to families whose children use drugs.

A third type of influence which might explain the use of drugs is that of the social atmosphere. The ninety-two cases are evenly spread over the most diverse neighbourhoods of Madrid. There is no evidence that any of these neighbourhoods' special characteristics might have influenced this type of deviant behaviour. Nor is the climate in the place of study or of work significant in this respect. On the other hand, there appears to be clear relationship between drug use and the kind of friendships preferred. These friendships were classified into eight types, one of which was that of friends who used drugs. If all the other categories are combined into one, that of friends who do not use drugs, the result is clear.


Sample classified by sex and type of friendship preferred (Percentage)


Individuals investigated




Using drugs
68 71
Not using drugs
32 29
100 100

Of all the possible influences, only the type of friendship shows a clear difference from that in similar populations of young people not involved in the drug world. This suggests that friends exert the major influence in the use of drugs. In order to confirm this, the investigators asked the direct question: "How were you introduced to the use of drugs?" Simplifying the results, the influence of friends appears decisive.

In other words, friends (or a male friend for a woman) were responsible for the initiation to drug-taking of most of the subjects, who would possibly not have been led to use drugs but for friends who initiated them. It is interesting to note that in no case does a female friend appear as the initiator. Moreover, some 9 per cent of the women connected their initiation with sexual intimacy.


Distribution of the sample according to the reasons leading to the use of drugs (Percentage)


Individuals investigated




Influence of "friends"
54 32
Influence of a male friend
45 29
Other reasons
1 6
100 100

The category which takes second place, "curiosity ", is interesting for the reasons which will be given below.

(c) Consistency of attitudes

Within the limits of the sample, it is interesting to compare the attitudes of the subjects to their families with their attitudes to society and drugs. The reason for this is obvious. The use of drugs, mostly hallucinogenic, seems motivated partly by a desire for new experiences in life and partly by escapism and the wish to get away from the world of reality.

We know that the families of the subjects condemn the use of drugs, and society obviously condemns it as well. Accordingly it is logical that someone who approves of the use of drugs and justifies it should be reacting against his family and society who condemn it. Family attitudes may be due to factors arising out of family life itself, such as bad father-mother or parent-child relations, the special position of the child in the family, the economic circumstances of the family, and so on; or to factors external to family life, such as the neighbourhood atmosphere, the school or place of work, and the friendships. Of all these factors only friendships appear to constitute a possible influence, since in most cases they have a connexion with the drugs. This fact strengthens the impression that the prevailing attitude of the subjects is antagonism towards the family and society, since they choose their friends from among persons who are fond of drugs and naturally approve of them. If each of these three attitudes is classified in accordance with an ordinal scale showing a flexible continuous variation from the highest to the lowest values, it is possible to see whether a person who occupies a certain order in one of the classifications, for instance that of family attitudes, occupies a like order in that of attitudes to society but an unlike order in that of attitudes towards drug use. This relationship between the various orders may be measured by several methods, but the one used here is that of the coefficient of ordered association devised by Goodman and Kruskal [ 4] and usually designated by the Greek letter gamma (γ). Since this coefficient serves to measure the probability of like and unlike orders in two classifications, the results are shown below in binary groups: family-society, family-drugs and society-drugs.


Gamma (γ)




+ 0.82
+ 0.32
- 0.73
- 0.05
- 0.45
- 0.71

This means, if we accept Freeman's interpretation [ 5] on the use of these techniques, that in men the probability of association or like ordering between the two classifications (attitude towards the family and attitude towards society) is 82 per cent greater than that of counter-association or inverse ordering. In other words, 82 per cent of the young men in the sample who have a certain attitude towards the members of their family will have the same attitude, or a like attitude, towards society; this, however, will occur only in 32 per cent of young women. Men are thus more consistent than women in this respect. Similarly, there is a negative consistency, though in varying degree, in all cases in the attitude towards family or society and towards drugs, except for those women who are not consistent in their attitudes towards drugs and towards the family. They may well accept or reject both. They show consistency only in relation to society and in favour of drugs, or conversely.

The inconsistency shown by women in their attitudes towards the family and towards drugs may be explained by another series of facts revealed by the study though not yet mentioned in this article, such as the influence on the behaviour of women of factors external to family life, which is stronger than that observed in the behaviour of men: their passive rather than active role in drug use, the fact that they do not proselytize and never appear either as pushers or pedlars of drugs; and the like. All this possibly suggests a greater affective dependence upon their families in the women of the sample than in the men. This means that for the women, drug use and social attitudes do not interfere with their family attitudes, at least not in the same way as for the men.

(d) Conclusion

A separate analysis of the subjects using various types of drugs, in conjunction with the influence of all the factors considered, reveals some interesting points.

The majority use hallucinogens, in particular derivatives of Cannabis sativa, as has been said. All the subjects in this group came to drugs after being initiated by friends (or by a male friend), or merely through curiosity. Curiosity is more common for the men than for the women. All the subjects use drugs in company,never alone. They display a certain consistency in their attitudes towards the family and society, which do not amount to outright rejection. Towards drugs other than Cannabis sativa derivatives they show opposition, for a number of reasons which have not been detailed in this article. Marihuana is more commonly used by young persons with more definite aspirations. Everything indicates that they are seeking to get away or to escape from reality for a limited time in an atmosphere of less responsible and in some measure marginal friendship, but that this does not deprive them of the feeling of integration in society and in the family, though with reservations.

The users of amphetamines, except Bustaid, used them during examination time or in situations requiring great concentration or resistance.

In users of other psychotropic substances in conjunction with alcohol the process is not clear. Most of them show greater dependence on friends and greater antagonism to the family and to society. Nevertheless, they do not openly accept drugs, and they show fear of the consequences. This also applies to the few who have experimented with LSD-25.

There is a group of six men and seven women who confess to using any type of drug that happens to be available, and alone. This seems to suggest that the drug has for them an intrinsic value, as it seems to have for genuine drug addicts. The possibility would require further study.

In all cases, a deficient social identification is apparent in one way or another. There is always antagonism, sometimes extreme, to society in its present structure. Generally the extreme attitudes are more consistently held than the intermediate ones. That is, someone who openly rejects society also rejects his family and accepts drugs; whereas someone who does not define his position so clearly in one area does not do so in others. In subjects of the former type the lack of aspiration is much more common than in those of the latter, who also have more years of schooling.

Within the limitations of the sample, the use of drugs among young men appears to be due to a desire to satisfy a subjective appetite or need, such as curiosity, companionship or a temporary escape from the daily routine. In view of the differences between drugs, their choice is not determined only by the limitations of the clandestine market or by economic factors, but also by the greater or lesser capacity of drugs to satisfy these appetites or needs of certain young persons. A study of this capacity of drugs to satisfy specific appetites may open the way to an understanding of the subjective significance of the use of drugs for these young persons who persistently seek to use them even at the risk of legal and social condemnation.



M. Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft , 3rd. ed.; Tuebingen, JCB Mohr, 1947 first part, chapter 1, "Soziologische Grundbegriffe ", pp. 1-30.


A. Schutz, Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt . Vienna, Springer, 1960 (2nd. ed.); On Phenomenology and Social Relations , ed. by H. R. Wagner, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 168-172.


Spanish Law No. 17/1967 of 8 April 1967, art. 29, Boletin Oficial del Estado , No. 86, 11 April 1967, p. 762.


L. A. Goodman, and W. H. Kruskal " Measure of Association for Cross-Classification ", in the Journal of the American Statistical Association , vol. 49, 1954, pp. 732-764.


L. C. Freeman, Elementary Applied Statistics for Students in Behavioral Science , New York, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1965, pp. 71-88.