case study

Adolescent Substance Use Focus Groups

We conducted 12 focus groups to investigate the substance use attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of Los Angeles high school students

Client: Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)

The Issue

LAUSD commissioned a large-scale qualitative study to better understand the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to substance use among its high school students.

The Outcomes

We conducted focus groups with 78 students to gain insights into substance use issues in their school and community.

Students reported that cannabis is the most widely-used and problematic substance.

LAUSD is using these study results to improve health promotion efforts district-wide.

Substance Use Among Los Angeles High School Students 

Sentient Research conducted a set of 12 focus groups with 78 high school students at six LAUSD high schools examining attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to substance use among their peers. Nearly all participants were Black or Latinx. Focus groups were separated by gender; approximately 60% of participants were female and 40% were male.


The majority of students said alcohol use is relatively uncommon among their peers. Students reported that alcohol is often used at parties or during the weekends, especially among particular students or social circles. Participants generally expressed negative attitudes about alcohol. Only about 1/3 of students considered alcohol use to be a serious issue among students at their school. 


Tobacco use — smoking, vaping, and chewing — was reported as relatively uncommon all schools, especially chewing and smoking. Across the focus groups, some students mentioned that their peers vape, and some expressed confusion about whether students were vaping tobacco or marijuana. Students generally expressed negative attitudes towards tobacco use, including that the practice seems outdated.

Marijuana use was reported by participants to be the most commonly used and problematic substance among their peers. 


Marijuana use was reported by nearly all participants to be very common and a major issue at their school. Students said that marijuana is easy to obtain, that many students have tried it, and that a substantial number of students use it regularly. Many students felt marijuana is dangerous because it can be over-used, damages the lungs and brain, can make someone act irresponsibly, and/or become addictive. A few students expressed the idea that marijuana could be a “gateway” drug leading to more dangerous drugs. Female students were more likely to report that marijuana is dangerous for youth. 

Student attitudes toward marijuana were not universally negative. For instance, some students felt marijuana can help people to be more relaxed and help them deal with life’s struggles. Some participants felt that marijuana is a problem only when people use too much. Most students thought that marijuana was less dangerous than other drugs and alcohol. A substantial number of students felt recreational marijuana should be legal. 

Other Substances 

Some participants mentioned that students use other drugs outside of school, on the weekends, or at parties. However, the overwhelming majority did not consider these other drugs to be serious issues at their school. The most commonly mentioned substances (other than marijuana) included Xanax and promethazine with codeine (an antihistamine/opioid in the form of syrup) that is mixed with soda.