Family social class, college bar scene play key role in young adults selling prescription drugs

September 9, 2014  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Among young adults who misuse prescription drugs, those who also come from wealthier families or spend time at college bars are more likely to sell prescription drugs, according to new research from Purdue University.

“Even after accounting for their personal educational background, young adults who participated in college bar scenes were nearly three times more likely to sell prescription drugs,” said Brian Kelly, an associate professor of sociology and director of Purdue’s Center for Research on Young People’s Health. “Given that other nightlife scenes have been focal points for the distribution of illicit drugs, it is somewhat surprising that college bars are the only nightlife scenes associated with prescription-drug selling. Now that we know young people in college bar scenes are engaged in selling, we can better tailor intervention efforts.”

Young adults who misuse and are from the wealthiest families were 23 percent more likely to sell prescription drugs compared to their upper middle class peers. The findings are based on survey interviews with 404 adults, ages 18-29, who reported misusing prescription drugs during the past three months. These individuals, average age of 24, were recruited from popular nightlife locations in New York City. The researchers analyzed recent activities in selling and being approached to sell prescription drugs, misuse, prescription drug access, and nightlife scene involvement.

The researchers focused on the selling of sedatives, painkillers and stimulants. The average number of days for misuse was nearly 12 for sedatives, 10 for painkillers and 13 for stimulants. The frequency with which they misuse pills is associated with their odds of selling. Heterosexual young adults are also more likely to sell prescription drugs than their sexual minority peers. This study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“More than half of prescription drug users acquire drugs through personal ties such as family or friends, but about 15 percent of those who misuse purchase the products,” said Mike Vuolo, an assistant professor of sociology, who studies youth behavior and substance use. “This trend is growing, and little is known about how the drugs are sold or about the young people who are selling them. Identifying characteristics of sellers and those who misuse could help support intervention efforts.”

While this study showed that prescription drug misuse was associated with higher odds of selling, the findings do not reveal if individuals are doing so to support their own use or to profit from their supply or some other motivation. Given that users of sedatives and stimulants are more likely to be involved in prescription drug markets, the researchers say there could be differences between those who misuse painkillers and other prescription drug misusers because of the physical dependence of opiates. For this reason, misusers may be more willing to sell from their supplies of stimulants or sedatives.

Kelly and Vuolo collaborated with professors Brooke E. Wells and Jeffrey T. Parsons from the City University of New York's Hunter College. Kelly also is affiliated with Purdue’s Department of Anthropology.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Sources:  Brian Kelly,

Mike Vuolo,

Related website:

Purdue College of Liberal Arts


Correlates of Prescription Drug Market Involvement Among Young Adults

Mike Vuolo, Brian C. Kelly, Brooke E. Wells, and Jeffrey T. Parsons

Abstract: While a significant minority of prescription drug misusers report purchasing prescription drugs, little is known about prescription drug selling. We build upon past research on illicit drug markets, which increasingly recognizes networks and nightlife as influential, by examining prescription drug market involvement.

Methods: We use data from 404 young adult prescription drug misusers sampled from nightlife scenes. Using logistic regression, we examine recent selling of and being approached to sell prescription drugs, predicted using demographics, misuse, prescription access, and nightlife scene involvement.

Results: Those from the wealthiest parental class and heterosexuals had higher odds (OR=6.8) of selling. Higher sedative and stimulant misuse (ORs=1.03), having a stimulant prescription (OR=4.14), and having sold other illegal drugs (OR=6.73) increased the odds of selling. College bar scene involvement increased the odds of selling (OR=2.73) and being approached to sell (OR=2.09). Males (OR=1.93), stimulant users (OR=1.03), sedative prescription holders (OR=2.11) had higher odds of being approached.

Discussion: College bar scene involvement was the only site associated with selling and being approached; such participation may provide a network for prescription drug markets. There were also differences between actual selling and being approached. Males were more likely to be approached, but not more likely to sell than females, while the opposite held for those in the wealthiest parental class relative to lower socioeconomic statuses. Given the misuse and prescriptions of sedatives and stimulants were associated with prescription drug market involvement, pain killer misusers may be less likely to sell their drugs given the associated physiological dependence. 

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