A contribution to the study of young people's attitudes towards drug use and users

Sections

ABSTRACT
Introduction
Method
Results
Concluding remarks

Details

Author: G. LEBEER , J. ORENBUCH
Pages: 99 to 106
Creation Date: 1985/01/01

A contribution to the study of young people s attitudes towards drug use and users

G. LEBEER
J. ORENBUCH
Centre d'études des changements sociaux, Institut de sociologie, Université libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium

ABSTRACT

A survey of the attitudes towards drug use and users, conducted in 1983 by means of a self-reported questionnaire administered to a sample of 569 students drawn from the general, technical and vocational department of 17 schools at Brussels, showed a diversity of attitudes among respondents: 12 per cent supported the view that drug users had no particular distinguishing feature and should not be subject to the social contraints applied to them ; 32.7 per cent expressed compassion for drug users, who, because of their affected health and relations with the authorities, required help but only at their request; 29.7 per cent remained dispassionate and took sides with neither positive or negative attitudes; 12.2 per cent thought that drug users were sick people for whom medical intervention was absolutely necessary, even without their consent; 13.4 per cent thought that drug users were responsible for their condition, which required intervention including severe repressive measures. On the basis of this research, the authors recommended that a drug educational programme should not treat drug use as a monolithic concept confined exclusively to legal and medical definitions, but, instead, should treat it in the context of the prevailing attitudes and factors involved.

Introduction

Many studies clearly show that information programmes concerning drug use that convey stereotyped messages to young people are usually not accepted. Young people question the impartiality of such programmes and criticize them for failing to take the complexities of drug use into account [ 1] - [ 8] . On the grounds that the message to be conveyed is based on scientific evidence, the organizers of such programmes often disregard diverse opinions of the intended audience about drug use and adopt a uniform approach to drug information. Such an assumption would be justified only if

it could demonstrate that drug abuse constituted a category with an unambiguous content, which could be clearly circumscribed. Professionals dealing with drug abuse are, however, far from reaching unanimous agreement on the criteria defining the phenomenon [ 1] - [ 8] .

For these reasons, the purpose of the research presented in this article was to identify the various sets of attitudes in the target audience as accurately as possible in order to design and implement an appropriate drug abuse prevention programme. It was essential not to draw automatically conclusions about the attitude of an individual on the basis of his or her choice of a given option because such an option may have different meanings. Thus, instead of presenting the respondent's choice of a given option in a fragmented form, the authors considered it necessary to combine the answers to different related questions in order to Construct an attitude ; this would give a more consistent picture of a respondent's opinion.

Method

This article is based on the results obtained in one part of a larger epidemiological study that was carried out in 1983 at the request of the Minister of Health and Education for the French-speaking community of Belgium. The study was intended to provide the knowledge necessary for the development of a series of concerted health educational programmes.

For the purpose of this study, a sample of 569 male and female students was drawn from the general, technical and vocational departments of 17 schools at Brussels. The students were administered a questionnaire that included a set of questions designed to elicit respondents attitudes to drug use and the dangers that such use may involve, as well as to drug users and the form of intervention they should undergo.

Among other things, the students were asked to define drug use and to opt for one of the following four variables : drug users are ill, unfortunate, selfish, or just like other people. The students were also asked if regular drug use was harmful to the users health, psychological condition, personal relations and relations at work, or harmful simply because of the legal or financial difficulties involved. Respondents were also asked about the appropriate intervention that drug users should undergo, which included the following options : treatment or help with or without the drug users consent ; no action at all should be undertaken because drug users are in no need of help ; or severe repressive measures.

Responses to these questions were treated by factor analysis of the multiple correlations. This analysis revealed the pattern oft he answers given by respondents, indicating their distinct sets of attitudes relating to drug use and users.

Results

Attitudes towards drag use and users

Respondents answers to the questions on attitudes towards drug use and users were classified into five categories, according to the harshness of the views expressed : positive attitude in terms of user's responsibility ; compassionate attitude; indecisive or inconsistent response; attitude that the drug user is a sick person needing rigorous medical intervention ; negative attitude in terms of user s responsibility. These categories are briefly described below.

Positive attitude in terms of user's responsibility

Of the total sample, the views of 12 per cent of the respondents were centered around a positive attitude in terms of user's responsibility. They felt that drug users as such had no particular distinguishing feature and should not, therefore, be subject to the multiple social constraints that were applied to them. If drug users had problems, it was because the practice was illegal or led to financial difficulties. The obvious implication was that no intervention was needed.

Compassionate attitude

The responses of 32.7 per cent of the respondents were centred around compassionate attitudes. They saw drug users as unfortunate people and felt that their use of drugs affected, first, their psychological condition and, secondly, their health or relations with the legal authorities. The respondents in this category considered that it would be right to intervene to help drug users, but only at their request.

Indecisive or inconsistent response

The replies of 29.7 per cent of the respondents were indecisive or inconsistent with respect to their attitudes towards drug use and drug users. With respect to harshness, these responses clustered around a mid point between positive and negative.

Attitude that drug users are sick persons needing rigorous medical intervention

The responses of 12.2 per cent of the respondents felt that the drug user was a sick person for whom medical intervention was therefore absolutely necessary, even without his or her consent.

Negative attitude in terms of users' responsibilities

The last group was made up of 13.4 per cent of the respondents whose attitude was negative in terms of users' responsibility. The choices of the young people in this group suggested that they wished drug users to be held responsible for their condition, which interfered with their relations with others. Their recommendations varied from severe repressive measures to a form of non-intervention, which might imply a refusal of help when requested.

Attribution of danger

The above categories of attitudes were correlated with respondents' opinions about the danger of regular drug use. Of the total sample, 57.l per cent of the respondents considered regular drug use always dangerous; 42.9 per cent thought that drug use was not dangerous; 4 per cent reported that none of the drugs was dangerous if used; and 38.9 per cent that only some of the drugs were not dangerous.

Table 1 shows that among the 68 respondents who had positive attitudes towards drug use and users, only one third felt that drug use was dangerous; whereas, in the category with compassionate attitudes, approximately one half of the respondents felt that drug use was dangerous. In each of the following three categories of respondents, classified according to their attitudes, a much larger number of respondents thought that drug use was dangerous, the largest group being those who thought that drug users were sick persons needing medical intervention.

Table 1

Opinions on the danger of drug use

 

(Number of respondents) N=566 a

Attitudes towards drug use and users

Any drug is dangerous

Only some drugs, or none at all are dangerous

Total

Positive attitude in terms of user's responsibility
22 46 68
Compassionate attitude
93 92 185
Indecisive or inconsistent response
110 58 168
Attitude that the user is a sick person needing medical intervention
53 16 69
Negative attitude in terms of terms of user's responsibility
45 31 76
Total
323 243 566

aThe information provided by three respondents was incomplete.

Socio-cultural factors

In order to explain the attitudes expressed and the differences among them, certain socio-cultural variables were correlated with the students' attitudes. The following variables were among those included: sex, age, nationality, year and department of studies, school system, socio- professional category of the student's parents, tastes in music and films, reading habits, and leisure time activities. Age was the only one of all these variables that was found to be significantly linked to the respondent's attitudes.

The students aged 20 years or over (15 percent of the sample) included a significantly higher proportion of respondents who expressed the opinion that rigorous medical intervention for drug users was needed or that repressive measures should be applied. The highest number of respondents in this category thought that drug use was always dangerous.

Sources of information

In addition to the variables described above, certain other variables were correlated With the categories of attitude; the results obtained Showed that the main factors accounting for the diversity of the respondents' attitudes seemed to be the differences in the source and amount of information received and the extent to which the respondents were acquainted with drug users.

Of the total sample (see Table 2), 33.4 per cent of the respondents reported that friends were the main source of information; 22.5 per cent said that books and newspapers were the main source of information ; and the rest (44.l per cent) indicated other sources, which included radio and television (18 per cent), school (13 per cent) and the family (4 per cent).

Table 2

Respondents' main source of information

 

(Number of respondents)

Attitudes towards drug use and users

Friends

Books newspapers

Others

Total

Positive attitude in terms of user's responsibility
35 10 23 68
Compassionate attitude
59 47 79 185
Indecisive or inconsistent response
50 38 81 169
Attitude that the user is a sick person needing medical intervention
17 20 32 69
Negative attitude in terms of user's responsibility
29 13 36 78
Total
190 128 251 569

Respondents stating that their friends were the main source of information tended to express attitudes emphasizing the user's responsibility, which were more positive than negative, while those who opted for books and newspapers in general favoured compassion and medical intervention, The respondents who opted for other sources of information were not significantly different from the total sample.

Knowledge of the substances

Although information about knowledge of substances has a limited value, the authors nevertheless believed that such knowledge would serve as an indicator of the extent to which individuals were familiar with the problems of drug use.

The respondents were asked to describe the drugs that were known to them, if any, and their prevailing mode of use. Table 3 shows that 59.9 per cent of the respondents reported a certain knowledge about drugs; 28.5 per cent of the respondents referred their knowledge to combinations of heroin and marijuana; 21.8 per cent, to combinations of hashish and cocaine; and 9.7 per cent, to combinations of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and methadone; 40.1 per cent of the respondents reported that they had no knowledge about drugs.

Table 3

Respondents' knowledge about drugs

 

(Number of respondents)

 

Drugs

 

Attitudes towards drug use and users

None

Heroin and marijuana

Hashish and cocaine

LSD and methadone

Total

Positive attitude in terms of user's responsibility
19 17 16 16 68
Compassionate attitude
79 45 42 19 185
Indecisive or inconsistent response
75 48 36 10 169
Attitude that the user is a sick person needing medical intervention
28 25 12 4 69
Negative attitude in terms of user's responsibility
27
27
18
6
78
Total
228 162 124 55 569

The correlation of knowledge of the substances with the main source of information, showed that friends were the best source of knowledge about the substances.

With regard to attitudes, a larger proportion of the respondents with the highest level of knowledge held a positive view of the user's responsibility. They also proved to be the least indecisive of the respondents and the least likely to favour rigorous medical intervention, In contrast, only a small proportion of the respondents with no knowledge held a positive view; the respondents with no knowledge or with a low level of knowledge accounted for three quarters of the students who favoured rigorous medical intervention.

Acquaintance with drag users

More than 60 per cent of the respondents who were closely acquainted with drug users reported that friends were their main source of information. Almost one in four of the students closely acquainted with drug users had the highest level of knowledge. On the other hand, half of those who did not know any drug users said that what information they had came from the media and claimed to know nothing about drugs. The absence of drug users in respondents' Circle of acquaintances seemed to be associated with an unwillingness to hold the drug user responsible, either in a positive or a negative sense. A high proportion of the respondents who were not acquainted with drug users favoured a policy of medical intervention. There is a fairly strong association between the closest acquaintance with drug users and a positive attitude in terms of users responsibility. The respondents who claimed a more remote acquaintance with drug users took a diametrically opposite stand, being those who most strongly expressed the negative attitude towards drug use in terms of users responsibility.

Concluding remarks

This survey has identified the main attitudes in the population of students studied, indicating an absence of unanimity of opinion among young people on the subject of drug use and users. The study is wider in scope than a mere opinion poll because it sheds light on certain characteristics associated with these attitudes. In the light of these findings, the varying degrees of receptiveness to drug education is understandable. A considerable proportion of the respondents expressed positive attitudes towards the drug users responsibility (12 per cent) and compassion (32.7 per cent). Nearly one third of the respondents (29.7 per cent) remained indecisive, being in favour of neither positive nor negative attitudes. A small proportion of the respondents replied with emotional or alarmist arguments : only 12.2 per cent of the respondents who supported rigorous medical intervention could be placed in that category, and their sources of information did not seem to make them very knowledgeable in this area. The responses characterized by repressive attitudes (13.4 per cent of the responses) were largely associated with the students who were aged 20 years and over. The respondents who expressed repressive attitudes appeared to be unfamiliar with drug use problems.

It seems likely that the attitudes of the respondents who are most tolerant of drug problems and most familiar with them stem from their objective assessment of the phenomenon of drug use, with its inseparable medical, ethical and political aspects.

The main conclusion to be drawn from this study, is that drug information and education should be both technically well-substantiated and devoid of moralizing: this is vital if the case is to be credible. Any drug educational programme is doomed to failure if it confines itself exclusively to the legal and medical definitions of drug abuse, treating such abuse as a purely abstract and monolithic concept instead of setting it in the context of the prevailing attitudes and factors involved.

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