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Research: Religion and Drug Use

May 22, 2018

by Kara Irby, University Communications

Research by Associate Professor of Sociology Amy Burdette and colleagues looked into how religious involvement affects drug use with some interesting results. The research team found those who hold strong religious beliefs are choosing to stay away from cannabis but that among women who are mothers, church attendance has no no significant effect on misuse of prescription drugs.

Although marijuana use for medical and recreational purposes is at an all-time high in the United States, the research team found that individuals who regularly attend church and report that religion is very important in their daily decision-making are less likely to use marijuana recreationally and medically. The study was recently published in the Journal of Drug Issues.

“Our study confirms previous studies of recreational marijuana use,” Burdette said. “However, I believe ours is the first to examine the association between religiosity and medical marijuana use.”

The study used data from 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a random sample of the U.S. adult population. Although many studies have focused on the association between religion and substance use in adolescence and young adulthood, few studies have focused on marijuana use in adulthood.

“We know various forms of substance use have increased among older adults as well," Burdette said. “So, we need to know what’s going on among people in their 30s, 40s and 50s in terms of their substance use.”

In the study, researchers examined three focal variables — religious salience, religious service attendance and self-rated health.

Levels of religious attendance ranged from never attending services to attending more than once a week. Researchers found with every level of increased attendance the odds of being a recreational marijuana user reduced by 13 percent. The study found the likelihood of recreational marijuana use decreased by 20 percent as religious salience levels increased.

Researchers also examined the association between religious involvement and marijuana use of adults in poor health. They found that religious involvement was less effective in deterring marijuana use among sickly adults whether recreational or medically prescribed.

“You have two big institutions coming against each other when you’re suffering and in poor health,” Burdette said. “You might have your pastor highly stigmatizing its use, saying ‘it’s bad, it’s a drug, you shouldn’t do this,’ while your doctor says, ‘try this, it could help your pain and suffering.’”

With the impact of religion in society starting to decline, Burdette said perhaps more people are deferring to a medical authority.

Researchers said further study could include personality types and the religious affiliation of individuals. They also noted that the data is based on self-reports and people were potentially more likely to avoid reporting socially undesirable behaviors.

Co-authors include FSU sociology doctoral candidate Noah Webb; and associate professors Jason A. Ford, University of Central Florida; Stacy Hoskins Haynes, Mississippi State University; and Terrence D. Hill, University of Arizona.

Burdette and Webb have written a blog post on their research at the college's Wicked Problems Wicked Solutions blog, available at this link.

In a related study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Burdette and her team examined the correlation — or lack thereof — between drug use and church attendance for women who are mothers. Researchers found while religious involvement could affect a person’s decision to use illegal drugs, it had no significant effect on women’s misuse of prescription drugs, including prescription opioids.

“Religious involvement matters for illegal drug use because religious communities directly condemn this behavior,” Burdette said. “However, religious communities are just beginning to discuss the dangers of prescription drug abuse.”

Specifically, researchers found the probability of engaging in any illicit drug use was significantly lower among women who attended church at least once a week compared to those who reported attending services a couple of times a year or less.

Burdette’s study used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a survey of nearly 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000 and mostly to unmarried parents. The study consisted of interviews with mothers and fathers at the time of their child’s birth and again when children were ages 1, 3, 5, 9 and 15 years old. Burdette and her team examined the population of mothers who were primarily single and of low socioeconomic status.

Burdette noted that the relationship between parental substance abuse and adverse child outcomes is well established.

“Our findings regarding the effects of religious involvement on substance abuse have implications for health and well-being across generations,” she said.

It is estimated that prescription opioid misuse costs the United States more than $55 billion in expenditures related to health care, lost productivity and criminal justice, according to a recent report from the Analysis Group, a financial and strategy consulting firm.

Overall, rates of substance abuse in the study sample were low.

“That’s a bit of good news,” Burdette said. “Whether you’re talking about prescription drug misuse or illegal substance abuse, it’s somewhat rare in our sample — it’s not that most mothers are doing this.”

The study found about 5 percent of women reported misusing prescription drugs, with nearly 3 percent of those misusing prescription pain relievers.

"Our research suggests that church leaders may want to directly address the issue of prescription drug misuse as churchgoers may not view prescription drugs in the same way that they view illegal drugs, Burdette said. “Not directly addressing the issue may lead to a high degree of moral ambiguity."