“I’m not Afraid of Those Ones just 'Cause They’ve been Prescribed”: Perceptions of Risk among Illicit Users of Pharmaceutical Opioids

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There has been a rise in the illicit use of pharmaceutical opioids (“pain pills”) in the United States. Conducted with young adult non-medical users of pharmaceutical opioids, this study uses qualitative methods and cultural consensus analysis to describe risk perceptions associated with pharmaceutical opioids and to determine patterns of cultural sharing and intra-cultural variation of these views.


The qualitative sub-sample (n = 47) was selected from a larger sample of 396 young adults (18–23 years old), who were participating in a natural history study of illicit pharmaceutical opioid use. Qualitative life history interviews, drug ranking task, and cultural consensus analysis were used to elicit participant views about risks and harms associated with pain pills and other drugs, as well as alcohol and tobacco.


Cultural consensus analysis revealed that the participants shared a single cultural model of drug risks, but the level of agreement decreased with the increasing range of drugs ever used. Further, those with more extensive drug use histories differed from less “experienced” users in their views about OxyContin and some other drugs. Overall, pain pills were viewed as addicting and potentially deadly substances, but these properties were linked to the patterns and methods of use, as well as characteristics of an individual user. Further, risks associated with pharmaceutical opioids were further curtailed because they “came from the doctor,” and thus had a legitimate aspect to their use.


This study highlights potential problems with universal approaches to substance use prevention and intervention among young people since such approaches ignore the fact that substance use education messages may be experienced differently depending on an individual's drug use history and his/her perceptions of drug risks. Findings reported here may be useful in the development of prevention and intervention programs aimed at reducing the harm associated with illicit use of pain pills.