The Drugs Most Commonly Abused on College Campuses

As a college student, achieving higher learning is an exciting time! Meanwhile, for parents of college students, this time can be just as exciting, but also potentially worrisome — especially if your child is going away to attend school.

For many college students, it’s their first time away from home. As part of this process, students are more open to exploration. For some students, this means experimentation with alcohol or other drugs.

College is a place for studying and learning, but it’s also for making new friends and enjoying newfound freedoms. However, many students are doing more than this — they’re are also drinking alcohol and taking drugs.

According to some statistics, which we’ll delve into below, today’s college students are abusing alcohol and recreational drugs at record levels. Although many students behave responsibly while in college, many others don’t. They abuse drugs and alcohol on a regular basis — often with devastating consequences.

drug abuse on the rise

Learn Why College Students Use Drugs and Alcohol

According to a report by USA Today, about 50% of full-time college students binge drink or use drugs at least once every month. This accounts for 2.7 million American college students. A survey from the Harvard School of Public Health reports that 98% of students engage in polydrug use, which is the abuse of more than one illicit drug at the same time.

Binge drinking statistic

This high percentage is not hard to understand when you take into account the poor impulse control of many young people. With the health risks of drinking and drug use aside, it’s not just the substance abuse that’s the problem, but also the negative consequences of drinking and using drugs. Plenty of college students aren’t truly aware of the consequences of these behaviors.

For many, social anxiety is a leading reason why they abuse alcohol. Many students quickly learn that alcohol makes socializing in a new environment easier. Other students may turn to “harder” drugs. Nationwide, college students comprise one of the largest groups of drug users.

The primary reasons for college students’ drug use are varied and include the following:

  • Stress. Students turn to drugs to cope with the stress of college life. They feel overwhelmed by all they are expected to do — including coursework, part-time jobs and socializing.
  • Curiosity. Students see their peers experimenting with drugs and alcohol and they become curious to try new things, as well.
  • Peer Pressure. By seeing other students use or experiment with drugs, they may feel compelled to fit in by also trying drugs.
  • Coursework. Students turn to stimulants and other “study drugs” in order to prepare for exams or to stay awake for longer periods to complete assignments by their deadlines.

It’s interesting to note that, according to the University of Michigan, female students are less likely to use illicit drugs or drink alcohol than their male counterparts.

female student drug habits

Find Out How College Students Are Acquiring Drugs

The vast majority of college students — more than 80 percent — acquired prescription drugs from their friends, according to a NBC News article. Kids are also getting drugs and alcohol from other sources, including:

  • From a parent’s liquor or medicine cabinet
  • Through the Internet or magazine subscription advertisements
  • Older siblings or peers
  • Their workplace
  • Through over-the-counter drug purchases
  • Drug dealers
  • From their physician after pretending they have a certain medical condition, such as ADHD

Understand the Consequences of College Drinking and Drug Use

It’s alarming that binge drinking and drug abuse on college campuses continues to rise. The consequences related to binge drinking and drug abuse come at a staggering financial and emotional cost to society as a whole.

Substance abuse leads to a number of problems for students, including the following:

  • Addiction to alcohol or drugs
  • Drunk driving
  • Unprotected sex
  • Alcohol-related crimes
  • Traffic accidents
  • Poor academic performance
  • Expulsion from college
  • Damage to health

The risk factors for drinking are numerous. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that excessive drinking leads to many negative consequences, including:

Death. More than 1,800 college students aged 18 to 24 die from alcohol-associated unintentional injuries each year.

alcohol related student deaths

Assault. Nearly 700,000 students aged 18 to 24 are victims of an assault by another intoxicated student.

Sexual Abuse. Again, in the age range of 18 to 24, nearly 100,000 students are sexually assaulted or become victims of date rape as a result of an alcohol-related incident.

Injury. Nearly 600,000 students are unintentionally injured while under the influence of alcohol.

alcohol related injuries

Academic Problems. About one-quarter of college students report doing poorly on examinations or papers, falling behind on assignments, missing classes and/or receiving lower grades overall as a result of their alcohol use.

Health Problems/Suicide Attempts. Health problems develop as a result of drinking in more than 150,000 students, and nearly 1.5 percent of students reveal that they attempted to commit suicide within the past year due to drug use or drinking.

Other notable statistics about alcohol abuse and college students include:

Know the Drugs Most Commonly Abused on College Campuses


Drinking is a popular activity on college campuses throughout the US. This is not surprising when alcohol use is considered socially acceptable. One reason alcohol is the substance abused most often is that it’s easy to get from liquor stores, supermarkets, small grocery stores, and pharmacies that can sell alcohol.

The older upperclassmen at colleges purchase the alcohol legally, but then distribute it to younger students who are under age. The low cost of alcohol also makes it an easy choice for students.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, four out of five college students, or 80 percent, drink alcohol. It’s important to remember that many of these drinkers are not yet 21 years old, the legal drinking age. This means that most college students are engaged in illegal drinking, although most college administrations do little to rectify this issue.

student alcohol consumption habits

Another issue is that many college drinkers engage in binge drinking in an effort to get drunk. A new trend on college campuses is to combine alcohol with sports or energy drinks. This creates a different sensation than alcohol alone. The caffeine and other stimulants used in energy or sports drinks may prove even more dangerous to the health of students when used in combination with other drugs.

There are many reasons why students abuse alcohol, including the following:

  • To reduce social anxiety
  • To lower inhibitions
  • To reduce stress
  • To relax
  • To fit in at college
  • To have fun
  • To reduce depression
  • To blow off steam after studying
  • To celebrate and party at spring break

The temporary good feeling a student may have from drinking alcohol does not outweigh the numerous dire consequences brought on by excessive drinking.


Another of the most commonly abused drugs by college students is marijuana. According to a University of Michigan study, one in 17 college students smokes marijuana on a daily basis or almost daily basis.

student marijuana statistic

Students use this drug for the same reasons they abuse alcohol. Also, known as weed, grass and pot, marijuana reduces anxiety, makes them feel better and helps them to fit in with their peers. Plus, with more and more states legalizing the drug for medical and recreational use, fewer students see the harm of using marijuana. However, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, nine percent of users become addicted to marijuana.

Another issue is that the average potency of marijuana is increasing. The potency of marijuana has at least tripled since the early 1990s, due to higher levels of THC. According to PBS, the levels of THC “jumped from 3.4 percent THC in 1993 to 12.3 percent THC in 2012.” Scientists have tested samples of marijuana with THC levels as high as 36 percent.

Because the federal government views marijuana as an illegal substance, it’s not regulated. This means that, when students purchase or use marijuana, they have no idea what the potency is. With a more intense high due to greater potency, marijuana can become a gateway drug, leading people to abuse stronger drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine or heroin.

Marijuana is dangerous in other ways, as well. Smokers inhale the drug more deeply and hold it longer in their lungs. This results in smokers inhaling three times the amount of tar one gets from smoking cigarettes. Other symptoms of long-term marijuana use include:

  • Memory problems
  • Lack of motivation
  • Impaired thinking
  • Increased heart rate
  • Lowered immunity
  • Loss of coordination
  • Feelings of paranoia
  • Panic attacks
  • Slow reaction times
  • Increased likelihood of reckless behavior
  • Respiratory problems

Although most users smoke marijuana, you can also eat it by making foods with cannabis oil as an ingredient, such as with brownies or candies. You can also drink marijuana-infused tea.

Like alcohol, marijuana is both inexpensive and easy to find. It’s not hard to get a medical marijuana card, so many students with these cards share them with other students.

Prescription Amphetamines

One of the most commonly abused drugs among college students is Adderall, a prescription amphetamine. Adderall is known as a study drug or study aid, and goes by names such as Addys, speed or uppers.

Prescription amphetamines, such as Adderall and Ritalin, are used to treat those diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). However, many college students without ADHD take this stimulant to stay awake longer, and to be more focused and productive. As many as 20 percent, or one in five college students, admitted to using Adderall without having an ADHD diagnosis.

student Adderall statistic

College students are often overworked and overwhelmed by their coursework, and feel they can get more done by using Adderall and other stimulants. Although students may think the drugs help them in school, most students use the drug without a legitimate prescription.

One study in the Journal of Addictive Diseases revealed that 62 percent of students with an ADHD medication prescription shared the drug with other students. Other students simply go to a doctor and pretend to have the symptoms of ADHD to get a real prescription. It’s not hard to fake the symptoms, so doctors are willing to write out a prescription.

Although many college students mistakenly believe that Adderall is safe because it’s a prescription drug, and even though the drug works in the short-term, Adderall is easily abused and can cause long-term damage to the brain. Adderall works by increasing dopamine levels. Dopamine is a chemical that makes a person feel good. For this reason, some students take Adderall not to perform better academically, but to get high.

Students use Adderall for a variety of reasons, such as the following:

  • Staying awake
  • Studying all night
  • Losing weight
  • Improved athletic performance
  • To get high
  • Better concentration
  • Eliminating distractions

Adderall also produces psychological benefits and the following feelings:

  • Confidence
  • Motivation
  • Euphoria
  • Energized
  • Less stressed and anxious
  • Less distracted

The problem with taking Adderall without a valid prescription, and without being under a doctor’s care, is that users don’t know how much to take. Adderall comes in tablet form of five mg to 50 mg.

However, some students crush the pills and snort them to get a faster effect. There are also users who combine Adderall with other substances such as alcohol, marijuana or cocaine. Students combine drugs to get a greater high or to improve the efficacy of Adderall. Because of taking unknown dosages and the risks of combining drugs, many users develop serious health issues or take a lethal overdose.


Ecstasy, also known as E, is derived from methamphetamine and is available in a variety of forms. MDMA is its purest form and is growing in popularity. Ecstasy is one version — Molly is another form.

Ecstasy is a synthetic drug classified as a stimulant and hallucinogen. It’s very popular at dance clubs, parties, raves and concerts. According to a report by the Centers of Addiction, 12.7 percent of college students have tried ecstasy at least once.

student ecstasy statistic

Young people enjoy taking ecstasy because of the way it makes them feel. The drug changes moods by affecting the levels of dopamine in the brain’s pleasure center. Users feel happy when on the drug, and their senses (sight, sound, smell and touch) are heightened.

The effects of ecstasy also include the following:

  • Euphoria
  • Calmness
  • Empathy
  • Friendliness
  • Lower inhibitions
  • Long-term energy

As with other drugs, the danger is not knowing what you are getting. Ecstasy may be cut with other drugs, such as:

  • Caffeine
  • LSD
  • Amphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Rat poison

For this reason, taking MDMA and its derivatives can cause serious and long-term health issues, even death. CBS News reports that between 2005 and 2011, the number of young people visiting emergency departments for ecstasy-related health issues rose by 128 percent.

The symptoms of overdosing on ecstasy are a rise in body temperature, seizures, loss of consciousness and foaming at the mouth. Heart and kidney failure are also potential side effects, and may be life-threatening. There are increased death rates due to abusing ecstasy. The main cause for these deaths is hyperthermia or overheating.

Because the drug is used to increase pleasure, many users of ecstasy are far more likely to combine drugs. This polydrug use also increases health risks and unsafe sexual behaviors, such as unprotected sex that leads to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Many ecstasy users also become addicted to the drug. Unfortunately, addiction is often not obvious, because the drug has no clear-cut withdrawal symptoms.

OTC Drugs

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are probably the easiest for college students to obtain. Not only are these drugs legal, but they’re also easy to buy at drug stores or supermarkets. Many students seek a high from cold and cough medicines and other OTC drugs that contain dextromethorphan, or DXM, though products with DXM are often kept behind the pharmacy counter.

Popular OTC examples include Nyquil, Tylenol Cold and Triaminic DM. Some users may even drink an entire bottle of the medicine to achieve a buzz. DrugWatch reports that more than 12,000 people each year are treated for a cough syrup overdose.

cough syrup statistic

While many view OTC drugs as safe, every year hospital emergency departments treat overdoses of cold or cough medicines. Abusing these types of OTC drugs causes side effects such as dizziness, nausea and numbness of the fingers and toes. Many students also combine the cold medicine with illicit drugs, producing a wider range of side effects. The most serious side effects to taking these OTC drugs can include brain damage or even death.

Experts feel that using OTC drugs can also be a gateway to other drugs. One study reports that the majority of young people who abuse OTC cold medicines also use marijuana on a regular basis.

Another problem is that college students learn new ways to get high from OTC drugs from social media sites and blogs. These how-to resources provide new recipes for combining drugs. Much of this content actively encourages people to try new cocktails of OTC drugs.

Diet Pills

Many college students worry about gaining weight during college (the dreaded “Freshman 15”) and not being attractive enough. As a result, some students turn to diet pills, which are easy to get by prescription or over-the-counter.

Diet pills work by suppressing appetite, increasing metabolism and reducing fat absorption. They are similar in many respects to amphetamines, so the pills give the user a feeling of energy and euphoria. For these reasons, students may abuse diet pills and become addicted to them. Side effects of abuse include dizziness, insomnia, vomiting and chest pain.

Recognize the Signs of Drug or Alcohol Addiction

If you’re a parent or friend of a college student, or a college student yourself, it’s important to recognize the signs of drug addiction or drug abuse in a college student. With intervention, a student can get the help they need to get clean and sober, and to possibly prevent or reduce any long-term damage to their health.

Below are a few tips to help you recognize alcohol or drug addiction in a loved one or friend. Although parents often don’t have daily access to a son or daughter away at college, friends are in a better position to notice important changes in behavior, such as the following:

  • Skipping college classes
  • Poor academic performance or being on academic probation
  • Sudden changes in weight
  • High-risk sexual behavior
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Oversleeping
  • Anger and agitation
  • Breaking the law
  • Lack of motivation and focus
  • Increased need for money
  • Depression
  • Traffic accidents

The list of the most commonly abused drugs by college students is growing as young people look for new ways to get a buzz. By combining drugs, or by trying new “designer drugs,” college students continue to seek out the ultimate high.

The dangers to an individual’s health, the potential injuries, the minor and serious accidents and the increase in crimes while high or drunk all make substance abuse a shared, societal problem.

If you’re a college student and you’re ready to get clean and sober, or a parent of a college student who is abusing drugs, contact 12 Keys Rehab to end substance abuse for a healthier and better life.

The Addiction Blog