Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2021/22: Public Attitudes Towards People with Problem Drug Use

This report presents findings from the 2021/22 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSA) conducted between the 21st of October 2021 and the 27th of March 2022. The primary aim of this report is to explore public perceptions of people with problem drug use.

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Executive Summary

Methodology and aims

The Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey is run annually by ScotCen Social Research, with the aim of collecting objective data about public attitudes on issues relevant to Scotland. In 2021/22, 1,130 people aged 16+ selected at random from 1,043 addresses were interviewed. The data has been weighted to be representative of Scotland's adult population in terms of age, sex and area deprivation[1].

The primary aim of this report is to explore public perceptions of people with problem drug use.


Attitudes around responsibility for drug use (Individual versus Societal)

  • Individual responsibility for problem drug use was explored with 19% of people agreeing that individuals 'have only themselves to blame' for problem drug use.
  • Societal responsibility was explored with the vast majority agreeing that 'it's in all our interests' to help people with problem drug use (91%).

Attitudes around the stigma associated with problem drug use[2]

  • Public perception of the impact of societal factors on problem drug use were explored. Half of people thought that individuals who use heroin come from difficult backgrounds (50%), which has risen from 29% in 2009. Similarly, just over a quarter disagreed with this (27%) compared with 53% in 2009, indicating a marked shift in attitudes towards factors that may contribute to problem drug use over the past 12/13 years. Views differed by age, with younger adults (aged 16-34) more likely to agree (72%) compared with those aged 65 and over (35%).
  • Stigma specifically towards individuals with problem drug use was explored by asking how deserving of help, if at all, someone is in different scenarios. The vast majority of people felt that individuals who are homeless due to problem drug use or due to a family break up are 'deserving' of help (87% and 98%, respectively). However, a smaller proportion of people (44%) thought those homeless due to problem drug use were 'very' deserving of help (as opposed to 'fairly deserving' or 'not deserving') compared with those who had become homeless due to a family break up (70%). This indicates that, although attitudes were sympathetic toward both causes of homelessness, there was a greater level of sympathy expressed towards those who has become homeless due to a family break up than for whom problem drug use was the cause.
  • Public perceptions of stigma and on recovery from problem drug use were explored. Just under a quarter of people (23%) agreed that 'most people who use heroin can never stop using drugs completely' while over a half (53%) disagreed. The proportion who agreed having decreased by 6 percentage points since 2009 from 29% and the proportion who disagreed having increased by 9 percentage points from 44% (indicating a decline in stigmatising attitudes over the past 12/13 years).
  • Perception of individuals with problem drug use was further captured by asking about levels of comfort/discomfort with regards to living near someone or working with someone who is getting help for problem drug use. Nearly six in ten people felt comfortable with the prospect of working alongside (59%), compared with living near (30%), an individual in recovery of problem drug use 'getting help to stop using heroin'. The proportion of those who did not feel comfortable living near someone getting help to stop using heroin has fallen from 49% in 2009 to 32% in 2021/22.
  • The perceived relative risk of people who use drugs to other people was explored. Only 3% of people thought that individuals with problem drug use pose 'no risk' to the safety of others, while 38% think they pose a 'small risk,' 41% a 'moderate risk' and 17% 'a big risk.' Views on this varied according to whether people had ever taken drugs themselves (47% feeling such individuals pose a 'big' or 'moderate' risk compared with 63% who had never taken drugs). People who agree that individuals with problem drug use 'have only themselves to blame' were more likely to consider them a 'big' or 'moderate' risk to others (81%) compared with those who disagree with this (47%).
  • Stigma associated with problem drug in a family setting was explored. The majority of people (57%) thought that young children (aged 5) living with parental heroin use should be temporarily looked after until the parent is in recovery, a decrease from 64% in 2009. Just under a third (29%) felt they should stay with the parents while getting help from social workers, an increase from 20% in 2009. Only 7% of people felt that the child should be permanently taken away, with those with children in their household being more likely to agree with this option (13%).

Attitudes towards the legality of drugs

  • Public attitudes towards the legality of two different classes of drugs was explored. Two thirds (66%) of people agreed that individuals "should not be prosecuted for possessing small amounts of cannabis for their own use", a steady increase from around a third (34%) in 2009 to a half (50%) in 2001. Attitudes were divided on whether individuals possessing heroin for personal use "should not be prosecuted", with 42% agreeing and 36% disagreeing, a marked shift from only 16% agreeing and 74% disagreeing in 2009.
  • People who reported to have a close friend or family member who have 'ever' regularly used drugs were more likely to agree that people "should not be prosecuted" for possessing cannabis or heroin for personal use (84% and 66%, respectively),compared with those who did not (57% and 33% respectively).

Factors associated with drug stigma attitudes

  • There were several key factors associated with less stigmatising attitudes towards people with problem drug use: those who had themselves tried illegal drugs before in their lives; those who have been educated to degree level and those who believed that problem drug use was a societal problem as opposed to that of an individual[3].



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