Patterns and contexts of polysubstance use: drug, set and setting

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


In European drugs research, quantitative methodologies traditionally focus on measuring unitary drug use prevalence or tracing a linear progression from the use of one drug to another over time and space. In contrast, ethnographic and qualitative drugs research studies capture more complex patterns of ‘pick and mix’ substance use which includes a range of legal and illegal drugs consumed at the same time or sequentially. Understanding the situatedness of these drug consumption choices from the perspective of the user provides a useful insight to inform risk management and harm reduction approaches.

A community and participatory drugs research study aimed at exploring patterns of drug use and associated drug-related harms in the context of a risk environment was conducted in Dublin over a twelve month period in 2015 (O’Gorman et al., 2016). A critical interpretivist methodology used qualitative methods (in-depth interviews and focus groups, n=96 participants) and ethnographic fieldwork (50 contacts over 100 hours) coupled with an analysis of indicators of drug trends, the policy environment and socio-economic data. This paper draws from the interviews and conversations with young people who used (a lot) of drugs and which sought to explore the role and meaning of drug use from the users’ perspective in the context of their everyday lives.

Analysis and Findings

The narratives of these research participants illustrate the range of legal and illegal psychoactive substances used over an episode of consumption – most common repertoires included combinations of cannabis, alcohol, prescription and over-the-counter medication, and stimulants. Their poly substance use and consumption choices were found to be shaped by diverse factors including availability and accessibility; legality and illegality; use intentions; attitudes; gender and avowed identities; and diverse structural, temporal and socio-spatial settings. Zinberg’s (1984) concept of ‘drug, set and setting’ provides a useful framework for analysing these influential factors: drug influences (the effects of using substances together or in sequence); set influences (agency, rational choice and expectations); and setting influences (environmental and structural).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 21 Sep 2017
EventEuropean Society for Social Drugs Research 28th Annual Conference - University Institute of Lisbon, Lisbon , Portugal
Duration: 21 Sep 2017 → …


ConferenceEuropean Society for Social Drugs Research 28th Annual Conference
Abbreviated titleESSD 2017
Period21/09/17 → …
Internet address


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