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Drug Use in Youth Culture: Finding Answers

Spring 2014 | By Stacey Mickelbart. Photos by Bobby Dorn.

Mike Vuolo (left), assistant professor of sociology, and Brian Kelly, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, discuss their joint research on substance use in youth culture.

Almost 60 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds surveyed in 2012 report using illicit drugs in their lifetime—and over a third report using them during the previous year. The rates of cigarette use among young adults in the same age group are even higher. Mike Vuolo, assistant professor of sociology, and Brian Kelly, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, are exploring the cultural factors that influence this substance use in young adults.

Both study multiple aspects of substance use and youth culture. Vuolo focuses on policy, law, and the criminal justice system. His research often involves analyzing large, existing data sets in new ways. Kelly has generally focused on primary data collection, interviewing and surveying young people over time on specific, focused topics.  

They’ve combined their complementary research techniques to study prescription drug misuse in youth subcultures and how tobacco-control policies affect youth cigarette use. Both studies are funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one of the National Institutes of Health. For the latter project, the two take a wider approach to tobacco policies than has been done before. Researchers often examine one tobacco law in isolation, explains Vuolo. “Usually it’s ‘Let’s look at this clean-air policy,’ or ‘Let’s look at this sales policy or taxes.’”

But all of these laws were enacted with multiple policies in place, including advertising regulations and smoke-free policies in different locations. Laws are nested and regulated at multiple levels: municipal, county, state, and federal. Vuolo and Kelly are analyzing these policy layers by pairing them with a larger database of individual youth smoking behavior, which can be pinpointed quite specifically by geographic area. “We’re trying to look at actual youth, and see if, when a policy is enacted, though there might be a lag, will there be an effect in the youth’s smoking pattern?” asks Vuolo.

Examining polydrug use

The next project they’ve proposed, says Kelly is “about how policies that are targeted toward one substance influence the way that people use other substances—for example, how smoke-free restaurant and bar laws might somehow influence the way young people use marijuana or drink.”

Examining such polydrug use is also helpful in understanding how young people misuse prescription drugs. That misuse has many parallels with the way people use illicit drugs, says Kelly. For example, Adderall, which is commonly prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is an amphetamine, so its physiological effect has parallels to those of methamphetamine or cocaine.

These similarities are cause for concern, explains Kelly. People addicted to prescription painkillers, for instance, might turn to heroin to satisfy their physiological dependence if they can no longer access prescription painkillers. Young adults also misuse prescription drugs to manage the side effects of illicit drug use—like partying on cocaine and then taking Xanax to fall asleep afterward.

One of the difficulties in controlling prescription drug abuse, explains Kelly, is that many prescription medications are prescribed for fundamentally subjective problems like pain, anxiety, and attention deficit. Without objective medical tests to measure them, doctors must rely on patients communicating what they’re experiencing. “There’s a balancing act that needs to happen between ensuring that people who legitimately need these medications have access to them,” says Kelly, “while at the same time ensuring that the problem doesn’t spill over into the illicit use in a way that continues to create problems for people.”

“There’s this interplay between how prescription drugs are misused and how young people are using illegal drugs,” he adds. “Simply because the government defines them differently doesn’t mean that you can disentangle them in terms of how they function among young people socially.”

Understanding youth culture

Part of that social culture involves music—another area that both Kelly and Vuolo have studied in relation to substance use. “Music is often a focal point for how young people organize around ideas, tastes, values, and beliefs that they share,” says Kelly.

Vuolo recently published a paper on the relationship between musical preferences and substance use among adolescents and young adults, but cautions against any tendency to censure music. “We found some pretty significant effects of what you listen to, what concerts you go to, and your substance use, but we’re not arguing in any way that politicians should step in and somehow say that rock music and hip hop are bad,” he says. When that happens, he adds, “youths sometimes get more insulated; they rebel against that.”

Kelly hopes his research with Vuolo, like the tobacco law study, helps policymakers evaluate what makes a difference and what doesn’t. To do that, says Kelly, policymakers have to understand that “drug use is not simply about pleasure. It facilitates social connections between young people that are really meaningful to them.” Approaching them from the standpoint of finding ways to reduce the amount of harm that drug use might have in their lives is something they’re generally open to, he explains. That might mean passing laws similar to one passed by the city of San Francisco. All nightclubs there have to provide free access to cold, potable water—which helped reduce the number of people seeking treatment for dehydration associated with ecstasy use and drinking.

“People have been using substances for a wide variety of reasons for thousands of years,” says Kelly. “That’s not likely to stop because of policy recommendations. But there are things that we can do to make sure that the consequences are less problematic than they otherwise could have been.”

Mike Vuolo and Brian Kelly meet with their research team, including, from top to bottom, sophomore sociology major Emily Ekl, sociology doctoral student Alexandra Marin, sophomore law and society major Jake Brosius, and sociology doctoral student Joy Kadowaki.
Mike Vuolo and Brian Kelly meet with their research team, including, from top to bottom, sophomore sociology major Emily Ekl, sociology doctoral student Alexandra Marin, sophomore law and society major Jake Brosius, and sociology doctoral student Joy Kadowaki.

The route to research

While Mike Vuolo and Brian Kelly share an interest in youth culture and substance use, their discovery of and approach to those subjects occurred on different paths.

Kelly started college assuming that to study any aspect of health, he needed to be a biologist or medical scientist. Two things changed that conviction: a medical anthropology class, and the book In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Phillipe Bourgois.

The book, a sociological study based on ethnographic field research among the drug dealers of East Harlem, drew Kelly in and demonstrated that there might be a different approach to Kelly’s interests. He has surveyed young people on behaviors such as club drug use, prescription drug misuse, and the impact of substance use on sexual health.

The first person in his family to go to college, Vuolo always loved math, but initially chose sociology as a means to enter law school. Encouraged by many to do research instead, he earned masters’ degrees in math and statistics as well as a doctorate in sociology. In addition to tobacco and drug policy, he has conducted research on a variety of topics, such as parent and child smoking, the effect of criminal records on employment, and the transition from school to work.

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