Non-medical drug use behaviour at five United States universities : a 15-year study




Pages: 49 to 53
Creation Date: 1985/01/01

Non-medical drug use behaviour at five United States universities : a 15-year study

Associate Professor T. L DEZELSKY
Professor J. V TOOHEY,
Research Assistant R. S SHAW
Health Science, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States of America


A survey carried out in 1970, 1973, 1976, 1980 and 1984 by means of a questionnaire at five American universities, which involved a total of 4,171 students, showed an increase in the use of cocaine, cannabis, hallucinogens, sedatives, amphetamines and alcohol. Cocaine use increased from 2.7 per cent in 1970 to 30 per cent in l984, while cannabis use almost doubled during that period.

The survey found that intercollegiate athletes used significantly more anabolic steroids than non-athletes, but with regard to the use of other substances the athletic students did not differ significantly from non-athletic students.


This article summarizes a descriptive study of non-medical drug use behaviour among undergraduate students enrolled in general studies personal health classes at the following five United States universities :

  1. Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona ;

  2. Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania ;

  3. Northern Colorado University, Greeley, Colorado ;

  4. State University of New York at Geneseo, Geneseo, New York (SUNY);

  5. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee.

The study was carried out in 1970, 1973 ,1976, 1980 and l984 by means of a questionnaire which was administered to a sample of approximately 1 per cent of the student population of these five universities. The number of students that took part in this study was 4,171.

The purpose of the study was to determine the extent of non-medical drug use behaviour and to observe trends in such behaviour among students at these universities.


A questionnaire was administered to students to measure patterns of past and present drug use behaviour in relationship to age, sex, college and social values. A questionnaire that had been used by the National Institute on Drug Abuse for the national survey on drug abuse ( [ 1] , pp. 141 - 163) was modified for the purpose of the present study.

The entire population of students in selected health classes were invited to participate in the survey ; classes selected were those in which the enrolment represented a broad spectrum of the undergraduate university population and were highly representative of the university population.


Cannabis use

When data for this study were first gathered in 1970, 37.8 per cent of the students at the five universities reported a t least a one-time use of cannabis ; the university with the highest rate was Arizona State University (49 per cent). Reported cannabis use peaked at 78 per cent at the University of Tennessee in 1976 and again at 78 per cent in l980 at Arizona State University. When the combined data for all five universities were considered , there was a significant increase in cannabis use ( from 37.8 per cent in 1970 to 72.6 per cent in l980). In 1984, the use of cannabis declined to 65.6 per cent. This trend accords very closely with that reported by the most recent national survey on drug abuse ( [ 1] , p. 7).

Among those who used cannabis in l980, 10.1 per cent used the drug once or twice ; 7.9 per cent three to six times ; 11.5 per cent on weekends and at parties only ; 6.5 per cent in the evening only ; and 3.6 per cent smoked it every day from morning to evening. In 1980, 46 per cent of the respondents reported that they continued to use cannabis. In 1984, 25 per cent of the respondents reported that they had used cannabis within the past month.

The 1976 survey showed that 64 per cent of the non-athletic student population and 75 per cent of the intercollegiate athletic students used cannabis.

Social values with respect to the law and cannabis use have shown interesting trends over the past 15 years. The data indicate that the majority of students at all five universities consider the law too harsh. This sentiment was strong at all universities in 1970 and became stronger in 1973, while in l976 it returned to the level of 1970. In 1970, at Arizona State University, 58 per cent of the cannabis users said they encouraged others to use cannabis, while only 27 per cent of the respondents in the 1976 survey said so. Similar trends were observed at the other four universities.

No data gathered in this study permitted the authors to interpret these trends for the surveys in l980 and l984. In the mean time, in formation from other sources indicates that the cannabis mystique is disappearing, and without any such mystique the placebo effect, producing a feeling of being "high ", is diminishing.

Alcohol use

The present study has shown that the percentage of students using alcohol has increased from 84.2 per cent in 1970 to 95.4 per cent in 1984.

The 1980 survey showed that 82 per cent of students consumed alcohol at weekends and at parties and less than 2 per cent used it throughout the day. Approximately 58 per cent of students used beer, 34 per cent wine, 19 per cent whiskey and 14 per cent other types of alcohol. Beer was the most popular alcoholic beverage among males, while wine was most popular among females.

The 1984 survey indicated that among the university students who had ever used alcoholic beverages (95.4 per cent), only 3 per cent had not used it within the year prior to the survey. This clearly shows that alcohol continues to be the drug of choice among undergraduate students. A review of innumerable references to college drug use behaviour indicates that alcohol is the most often used substance for mood modification [ 2] .

Cocaine use

The l970 survey indicated that only 2.7 per cent of undergraduate students used cocaine. The percentage increased to 30 per cent in 1984. Of all the mood modifying drugs being used during this era, no single substance has shown such an amazing increase in popularity. While other drugs have lost their mystique, cocaine continues to receive publicity by various means of social conditioning. The mass media glamourizes the involvement of certain national celebrities in cocaine abuse. Media attention meshed with the publicity received by cocaine through music [ 3] has kept the drug in vogue.

The data show that students at Arizona State University have been influenced by this social conditioning process more than students at other universities. A t this university, 44 per cent used cocaine in 1984 and only 6 per cent discontinued its use during the year prior to the survey. In l984, at all universities, about one out of three student cocaine users had used cocaine within one month prior to the survey.

Use of lysergic acid diethylamide

During the period between 1970 and 1974, there was a sharp increase at all five universities in the percentage of students who used lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) ; this increasing trend continued at Arizona State

University and SUNY, whereas the use of LSD decreased at Pennsylvania State University, Tennessee University and Northern Colorado University.

The peak use of LSD was found in the 1976 survey (15.4 per cent), while the percentage decreased to 9.6 per cent in 1980 and increased again to 12.5 per cent in 1984. It appears that the tendency to discontinue use of LSD is very high among college students. In 1980, l2 per cent of the respondents reported having used phencyclidine, whereas only 0.7 per cent reported its continued use.

Use of amphetamines and amphetamine-like substances

The percentage of the use of stimulants increased from 20.7 per cent in l970 to 49 per cent in l984.

In 1984, 6 per cent of amphetamine users discontinued amphetamine use in the year prior to the survey. The use of stimulants ranked third after alcohol and cannabis.

Use of sedatives

The percentage of students who used sedatives for non-medical reasons was l0.7 per cent in l970 ; 16.5 per cent in 1976 ; and l3.6 per cent in 1984. The 1980 survey showed that 12.9 per cent of the respondents used methaqualone.

Use of anabolic steroid

The data show that anabolic steroid had frequently been used by athletes for body building [ 4] , [ 5. ] In 1970, 15 per cent of all intercollegiate athletes used steroids ; the percentage increased to 20 in 1976, 1980 and 1984 surveys. In 1984, only 1 per cent of the non-athletic students reported using steroids.

With respect to the use of psychoactive substances, such as alcohol, cannabis, sedatives, cocaine, stimulants and hallucinogens, intercollegiate athletes are not significantly different from non-athletic students.

It would appear that the athlete is as much a part of the culturalization that has taken place with respect to drug use as any other individual in the university population.

Concluding remark

There were no significant inconsistencies in reporting any aspect of illicit drug use in this survey, which suggests that the information provided by the students may be accepted with reasonable confidence. Respondents participating in this study appeared to be quite uninhibited in reporting their drug use.

Percentage of drug use among students at five American universities, 1970-1984

1,2 1,4 1,9 0,0 0,5
Lysergic acid diethylamide
7,8 21,3 15,4 9,6 12,5
10,7 20,7 16,5 15,8 13,6
2,7 12,8 12,7 23,6 30,3
20,7 37,4 32,9 35,5 49,0
37,8 67,6 63,4 72,6 65,6
84,2 90,8 84,3 89,8 95,4

N=Number of Students



.J. D. Miller and others, National Survey on Drug Abuse: Main Findings 1982 (Rockville, Maryland, National Institute on Drug Abuse, U. S. Government Printing Office, 1983), pp. 141-163.


M. S. Kaplan, "Patterns of alcoholic beverage use among college students". Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, vol. 24, No. 2 (1979), pp. 26 - 40.


J. V. Toohey, "Popular music and social values", The Journal of School Health , vol. 52, No. 10 (1982), pp. 582-585.


J. V. Toohey and B. W. Corder, "Intercollegiate sports participation and non- medical drug use", Bulletin on Narcotics (United Nations publication), vol. 33, No. 3 (198 1), pp. 23 - 35.


J. V. Toohey and B. A. Cox, "Anabolic steroids and athletics", Scholastic Coach, vol. 40, No. 5 (197 1), pp. 50 - 54.