Does Polysubstance Use Lead to Less Involvement in Substance-Free Activities?
Polysubstance users are people who simultaneously consume more than one type of substance or consume multiple substances in a short span of time. Such a pattern of substance intake commonly increases an individual’s overall level of exposure to substance-related risk.
In a study published in January 2015 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, a team of American researchers looked at the impact that a pattern of polysubstance use has on college students’ level of involvement in classwork and other important substance-free activities.
College Students and Substance Use
In the U.S., college attendance is strongly associated with alcohol consumption in general and risky alcohol consumption in particular. According to figures compiled by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, fully enrolled college students between the ages of 18 and 22 consume alcohol more often than young adults in the same age range who go to college part-time or don’t attend college at all. In addition, they have a higher rate of participation in heavy drinking and binge drinking.
Heavy drinkers boost their chances of developing alcoholism and/or non-addicted alcohol abuse by regularly exceeding public safety protocols for moderate alcohol intake. Binge drinkers expose themselves to short- and long-term harm by consuming enough alcohol to rapidly get drunk. Regular binge drinkers often cross the threshold into heavy drinking.
Fully enrolled college students consume marijuana and other illicit/illegal drugs roughly as often as their age counterparts who attend college part-time or don’t go to school at all. College men consume marijuana/cannabis substantially more often than college women; they also have a higher rate of use for other illicit/illegal substances. In terms of prescription drug abuse, college students of both genders are unusually likely to consume stimulant medications normally used by people diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Polysubstance use (or polydrug use) can involve any combination of alcohol, mind-altering medications and/or mind-altering drugs with no legitimate medical purpose. The practice is dangerous for several reasons. First, the simultaneous consumption of two or more substances can lead to unpredictable reactions in the individual, especially when the substances in use include drugs made outside of a monitored laboratory that practices strict quality control. Partially related to this factor is an increased chance of experiencing a substance overdose.
Additional risks associated with consuming multiple substances include heightened chances of experiencing harmful, potentially severe changes in mental health and heightened chances of developing cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) problems. Some of the most damaging known combinations of substances consumed by polydrug users include alcohol and opioid drugs or medications, alcohol and stimulants such as amphetamine or cocaine, and stimulant drugs or medications and the stimulant/hallucinogen MDMA (Molly, Ecstasy).
Impact on College Students’ Activities
In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine and the University of Memphis looked at the impact that polysubstance use has on college students’ level of involvement in important, non-substance-related daily activities. A total of 205 students with an average age of 19 participated in this project.
All of the participants had engaged in at least one bout of binge drinking in the 30 days prior to the start of the study. The researchers asked each student to detail his or her consumption of all types of substances during the same period of time. In addition, each student detailed his or her level of involvement in non-substance-related activities such as attending class, studying for class or exams, exercising and taking part in favored recreational pursuits.
The researchers defined three levels of substance use among the study participants: binge drinking alone, binge drinking combined with marijuana intake and polysubstance use involving multiple illicit/illegal drugs or medications (although the combined use of alcohol and marijuana is itself a form of polysubstance use). After analyzing their findings, they concluded that involvement in binge drinking alone noticeably interferes with the level of engagement in non-substance-based activities that support the maintenance of a functional daily routine.
However, the researchers also concluded that both the combination of binge drinking and marijuana use and the intake of multiple illegal/illicit substances produce a higher level of interference with non-substance-based activity than binge drinking alone. The highest level of activity interference apparently occurs among college students who engage in polysubstance use centered on multiple illicit/illegal drugs or medications.