group of young drunk girls at college party

Alcohol and Drug Use in College – Switching Anxiety for Addiction

Going to university can be a major source of social anxiety for many students. The temptation to do drugs is strong because college students often find they make socializing easier or help them study harder. Of course, not all college students start abusing drugs or binge drinking right from the start, but regular use of psychotropic substances has put many on the road to addiction.

Trends change over time and no college is immune to drugs, particularly the latest ones. Notwithstanding this fact, college students abuse a few substances consistently over time. These are alcohol, marijuana, hallucinogens, and prescription pills, of which Adderall is most prominent.

substances abused by college students chart


Adderall is a common choice among college students who are struggling with academic requirements. A study by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry examined trends of use of this substance from 2006 through 2011 and found that up to 33% of the college students surveyed were taking it non-medically, usually getting Adderall prescriptions from family members and friends or illegally without any prescription.

As more and more states legalize medical marijuana use, more college students are turning to Mary Jane as their drug of choice. It is more popular than alcohol on some campuses. Its rampant use on campuses goes back to the 1950s, when the Beatniks — a young, rebellious social group – helped introduce it at the college level.

From LSD to Ecstasy

Social revolutions continued into the 1960s and 70s, and university students were the main bearers of new views and convictions. Their newfound freedom helped usher in the next level of drug experimentation, and mushrooms, LSD, and other hallucinogens hit campuses nationwide.

The mass drug-related Latin American crime wave in the 1980s rendered cocaine the drug of choice across many social groups, including top college students and athletes.

Ecstasy, which became popular back in the 90s, is now in the spotlight again. College students are within the target age range for MDMA, a drug commonly distributed at parties and concerts.

Prescription Pills

The popularity of prescription pills surged in the 2000s. Students with prescription drugs started sharing or reselling medication to classmates, leading to widespread use on college campuses. Use of painkillers rose at the same time.

According to the Monitoring the Future study of 2015, carried out by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health, almost every fourth college student had used an illegal drug in the past month.


Alcohol abuse remains one of the major problems as this substance is legal and easily accessible.College students are much more likely to involve in heavy drinking behaviors than their non-college peers.

college students binge drinking chart

Drug Use Over Time: Then and Now

College students are doing more drugs than ever. Illicit drug use rose from 34% in 2006 to 43% in 2016, the highest in the past 30 years, according to the Monitoring the Future study. Read on to see how use of the most common drugs on campuses has evolved over time.

  • Use of this prescription drug has been rising steadily since 2012. A reference to data of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that non-medical use of Adderall by college students has increased by 67 percent since then, while emergency room visits increased by 156 percent. The 2015 MTF study showed that nonmedical use of Ritalin, a stimulant prescribed to treat ADD (like Adderall), increased from 2.9 percent in 2000 to 4.2 percent in 2015.

  • MTF data show marijuana use among college students keeps rising, reaching 39% in 2016, the highest it has been in decades. It is second only to alcohol. According to a survey by the Harvard School of Public Health, every second student has tried it at least once. These increasing rates are partly owed to the erroneous belief that marijuana is not addictive or even harmful. However, data of the National Institute of Drug Abuse show that one in every ten users becomes addicted.

  • A report by Columbia University entitled “Substance Abuse at America’s Colleges” shows that the popularity of alcohol on campuses has never waned. Rates of alcohol use and abuse largely remained unchanged from 1993 to 2005 (69% for drinking and 40% for binge drinking). What has changed are alcohol addiction rates: 22.9% of college students nationwide (almost every fourth person) met the medical criteria for alcohol addiction in 2001, compared to 8.5% in 1993.

  • A study available in the online database of the US National Library of Medicine found that the use of ecstasy in college more than doubled in the past decade - from 2.2% in 2007 to 4.7% in 2016. Ecstasy is a hallucinogen, enhancing sensations and stimulating the nervous system.

  • Columbia University’s Substance Abuse Center (CASA) reports that use of cocaine and heroin in college rose 52% between 1993 and 2005.

According to a study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2009, there is a direct correlation between enrollment in higher education institutions, abuse of Adderall, and abuse of other types of drugs. College students between 21 and 24 using Adderall for non-medical reasons were eight times more likely to have used cocaine compared to individuals in that age group not in college (28.9 percent versus 3.6 percent) and five times more likely to have used painkillers non-medically (44.7 percent versus 8.7 percent). They were also three times more likely to have smoked cannabis in the past year compared to their non-enrolled peers (79.9 percent versus 27.2 percent).

Nine out of ten college students using Adderall non-medically reported binge drinking regularly, and over half reported drinking heavily.

drug use in college chart

Why Do College Students Turn to Drugs?

College students usually turn to drugs to deal with academic and peer pressure, relieve stress, forget their problems, and “fit in”. College administrations are largely unconcerned, thereby facilitating a culture of drug abuse. What are the most common reasons behind the staggering rates of drug use on campuses today?

  • Results of a CASA survey on 2,000 students showed the majority of them took drugs and drank alcohol to be “part of the group”. In many cases, people are exposed to illicit substances in college for the first time. Their friends introduce them to drugs. Students succumb to the pressure so they aren’t seen as the “odd one out”.

  • Willingness to experiment is another reason for the abuse of alcohol and drugs on campus. A student may be striving for new, fun experiences, and drug use ranks at the top among these. Once they try a given drug, they’ll want to see its effects in combination with another one, typically marijuana with alcohol. Having sex while on cocaine or another stimulant is another experience many aim for in college.

  • College isn’t just fun and games. Academic pressure can be very intense, with frequent assignments, presentations, tests, midterm exams, internships, and more. To add to these challenges, many students don’t know what they want to do after college and don’t pick a major until their junior or senior year. The stress and anxiety of all this contributes may lead one to turn to illicit substances.

  • College is all about social interactions, and an introverted person can have difficulty coping with these. Drugs and alcohol help lower inhibition and minimize social anxiety. Some students make a habit of using alcohol or drugs to make socializing at gatherings easier. The majority of women CASA surveyed reported using alcohol to lower inhibition because they were under huge pressure to have sex.

Greek Life and Substance Abuse

While the Greek system (fraternities and sororities) does offer some professional and social benefits to its members, these students are also much more likely to abuse substances compared to their peers outside the system. Why is this? There are a number of reasons.

  • Initiation Rites - Fraternities and sororities’ initiation rituals almost always involve binge drinking. This is unfortunate as this form of hazing can lead to accidents and alcohol poisoning. Sometimes, it has fatal outcomes. It is also habit-forming – according to a Harvard University study, 80% of fraternity and sorority members are binge drinkers compared to 40% of college students overall.
  • Group Living - College brothers and sisters live together in a house, which makes peer pressure even harder to avoid. Incidences of binge drinking and drug abuse are most common in the Greek residence. Harvard University reports that 83 percent of Greek system members suffered due to their brothers’ and sisters’ excessive consumption of alcohol. These incidences involved accidents, ER visits, and sexual assaults.
  • Lack of Control - There is usually no control over alcohol use in Greek housing. Fraternity leaders are young people themselves and fail to encourage drinking in moderation. What is more, campus officials often turn a blind eye to drug and alcohol abuse in the Greek system because many fraternities and sororities have a positive economic impact on the university. As a result, fraternity members face the highest risk of suffering from severe drinking consequences such as substance abuse disorder, particularly those who are white and under 25.
young woman smoking marijuana joint

Drugs Commonly Abused by College Students

Unsurprisingly, alcohol and marijuana are the psychotropic substances most widely used (and abused) by college students. However, they are far from the only ones. Others include anabolic steroids, stimulants and psychedelics, and “study drugs.”

  • Alcohol has the regrettable distinction of being the most-abused substance on college campuses nationwide. According to statistics of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 80% of college students drink, and 75% of them are under the legal drinking age of 21. What is more, 50% of these users engage in binge drinking, which is consuming more than three alcoholic beverages in one sitting. Why is alcohol so popular? Its use is glorified in movies, TV, and music. You can’t have missed a movie with scenes of college drinking parties involving huge amounts of alcoholic beverages. Students are portrayed as having a good time, and perception of the consequences is limited and/or inaccurate. Moreover, young people have limited impulse control as it is. Exacerbating Factors It is also awfully easy to find time for drinking in college. Students are able to set their own schedules so they have long weekends open for drinking and recovering from hangovers. Class attendance isn’t even mandatory in some cases. Easy access to alcohol makes it even more attractive. Students over 21 can buy it legally and give it to younger students. A lot of the alcohol you can buy is really cheap, which is another factor. This is also of poorer quality, making it even riskier. Nontraditional methods of consuming alcohol (i.e. eyeballing – pouring liquor into the eyes) present further risk. Effects of Alcohol Abuse Alcohol abuse is associated with progressive damage to the liver and heart, but those are not the only ramifications. Another CASA study showed that more than 1,700 students a year die from alcohol poisoning and other alcohol-related causes. This study also found that alcohol was a factor in 100,000 rapes or sexual assaults and 700,000 other violent crimes a year. Every fourth college student reports academic consequences from what seems to be unbridled alcohol use, including lower grades, missing class, falling behind, or doing poorly on tests. CASA reports that students who consumed alcohol at least 3 times per week were around 6 times more likely to fail tests than their non-drinking peers (40 percent vs. 7 percent). 64% of drinkers missed classes compared to 12% of non-drinkers. Alcohol abuse is also more common in college students than their non-college peers, as the infographic below shows. Every fifth college student meets the criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD), which include continuing use despite negative consequences, such as severe hangovers with tremors. Another criterion is loss of interest in things one used to enjoy doing that don’t involve alcohol use with proportionally increased interest in drinking and drinking-related activities. Other consequences of alcohol abuse include suicide attempts, injuries, unsafe sex, DUI, property damage, vandalism, and criminal charges.

  • Marijuana is relatively cheap and easy to access. It is generally not hard to obtain a medical marijuana card for a health problem. College students who have cards frequently share their supplies with those who don’t. Marijuana is usually smoked, but it can also be drunk in beverages or eaten in cakes and brownies. Marijuana creates a euphoric sensation and is used to ease social anxiety or just to feel good. However, it is not free from side effects. These can include heart rate changes such as tachycardia and rapid blood pressure increase or decrease, loss of coordination, compromised immune system function, traffic accidents, diminished cognitive and memory function, slowed reaction times, breathing problems, and lack of motivation. Many marijuana users abuse alcohol or use other drugs. According to a survey by Harvard School of Public Health, 98 percent of drug users take multiple substances.

  • According to a report by the Associated Press, anabolic steroid use is rampant on college campuses. More specifically, steroid abuse is an issue athletes struggle with. It is becoming a major problem in college football. Steroids are administered orally or via injections. Sustanon, Dianabol, Anadrol, Anavar, Winstrol, Trenbolone, and Deca durabolin are common anabolic steroids. In a series of interviews for AP, players, coaches, and dealers talked about its consequences, the most noticeable of which is unhealthy weight gain. Almost 5,000 players gained over 20 pounds in just one year. A number of players gained up to 40 pounds in a season, and 100 players gained over 80 pounds in one year. Steroid abuse causes heart and liver damage, which is exacerbated as students using them also tend to abuse other substances. Data of the National Institutes of Health show 70% of college students using anabolic steroids for non-medical reasons also meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder.

  • So-called “study drugs” include prescription medication to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, among which Adderall and Ritalin are most widely abused. Caffeine pills, Modafinil, Artvigil, Waklert, Modalert, and Modvigil are other common study drugs. ADHD medication is easy to access. The Journal of Addictive Diseases reports that almost two-thirds of college students with a valid prescription for ADHD medication share their supplies with students without prescriptions. Study drugs are a way for college students to deal with academic pressure. They stimulate cognitive function, sharpen focus, and improve efficiency. 81 percent of respondents in a CNN survey stated there wasn’t “any danger” in using these drugs as a “study aid.” A third of all college students are believed to have tried Adderall at least once. Those who take it regularly report having started with a dose of 30 mg. Some proceed to snorting it to enhance the effect. Long-term effects of Adderall abuse include physical damage to the brain and other organs and internal systems.

  • Club or party drugs like ecstasy, cocaine, and LSD have not lost their place on college campuses. CASA reports that use of cocaine on campuses increased by 52 percent between 1993 and 2005. Ecstasy, also known as MDMA, is a hallucinogenic derivative of methamphetamine. According to data from a Monitoring the Future study, 12.7 percent of college students have tried it at least once. As with all hallucinogens, MDMA enhances sensations, acting as a stimulant, which is very appealing to college students and young people in general. It increases sexual pleasure, which is why risky sexual behavior is one of its most prominent (and regrettable) effects. It increases the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection and, even worse, an incurable virus such as HIV. Shrooms are also popular across campuses. Their scientific name is Psilocybe cubensis, and they are a form of fungus, which as has been used for over nine millennia. Shrooms have a mood-enhancing effect. Users will experience a euphoric state with general feelings of happiness, laughing, and flights of the imagination that are otherwise untypical of them. Shrooms can have adverse effects, such as headaches, paranoia and intense fear, nausea (if one had too much), or anxiety. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over half a million people between the ages of 18 and 25 abused this and other types of hallucinogens in 2014, with at least three-quarters of them being in college at the time. Consequences of Stimulant Abuse Stimulant abuse can have a number of adverse side effects, the most common ones being an upset stomach and stomach pain, headaches, appetite loss, high blood pressure, and depression. Less common side effects include rapid weight loss, anxiety disorders, insomnia, and nervous tics.

  • Increasing numbers of students are requesting prescription drugs in the absence of a medically legitimate reason. There is the erroneous perception that these drugs help to maximize academic performance with minimal risk, and students read up on the symptoms to persuade a doctor to give them a prescription. The number of antidepressant prescriptions, for example, has increased drastically over the past ten years. It is estimated that up to 50 percent of U.S. college students in counseling and health centers are on antidepressants. Most commonly prescribed antidepressants include Zoloft, Lexapro, Paxil, Luvox, Prozac, and Cymbalta. The biggest and most comprehensive survey on prescription drug use on campus is the 2015 College Prescription Drug Study (CPDS), carried out in the spring of that year. The survey found that every fifth college student misused prescription drugs. The vast majority (83 percent) had gotten them from friends. With respect to the reasons for abuse, 85 percent of respondents said they were taking the medication to improve their grades or their focus on schoolwork. The Aftermath of Antidepressant Abuse Ten percent of all students who misused antidepressants reported experiencing depression as a result, which was to be expected. What the students didn’t expect, however, was that misuse of these drugs caused their grades to drop even further.

  • Vicodin and OxyContin are the opioid pain relievers abused most often on campuses nationwide. Students often crush and snort them for a quicker effect. These drugs affect the cognitive perception of pain and create a feeling of euphoria. They are fairly easy to access, cheap, and believed to be safer than illegal drugs because they have a medicinal purpose. However, they are highly addictive. The CDC reports that painkillers account for 75% of prescription drug overdoses on campus.

Where Do Students Get Drugs?

As noted earlier, practically no drug is hard to come by in college. Students can get and do drugs in their dorms, clubs, bars, and even libraries. Read on to find out where most drugs in college are available.

  • Online - 28% of people with prescriptions for medications are willing to share them, but that doesn’t account for all cases involving prescription drug abuse in college. These drugs are widely available online, in many cases from overseas pharmacies. Purchases are undocumented, so it isn’t possible to access exact statistics. Ordering drugs this way is very dangerous.
  • Dorm Rooms - College dorm rooms are a revolving door of visitors and ad hoc gatherings. Of course, most parties do not happen in one’s dorm, but students often contact people in their residence, apartment or house who are doing drugs or drinking alcohol or find themselves hosting parties where this is done. According to a survey by the Washington Examiner, 49 percent of students surveyed say they actually bought drugs in their dorm room.
  • Dealers - Florida State University leads the nation when it comes to drug costs pro capita: their students are spending $290 a month on drugs each. However, money isn’t the only thing students are exchanging for illegal substances. 14 percent of respondents in the Examiner survey said they had slept with their drug dealer. Almost 50 percent of them reported cocaine as their drug of choice. 17 percent traded sex for opioid prescription drugs such as painkillers, just under 10 percent for Xanax, and 7 percent for ecstasy.

Tolerating a Culture of Substance Abuse

The college landscape is rife with individuals who are not only turning a blind eye to the issue of substance abuse on campus, but even actively contributing to it. These range from coaches giving their players steroids to parents insisting on prescription medication for their kids to keep them relaxed in school and doing well academically. It is no wonder, then, how widespread the problem has become.

According to a survey on 400 college administrators conducted by CASA, a majority of deans, college presidents, and alumni accept drinking and drug use as part and parcel of college life, even a rite of passage. College administrators are consumed with making money, constructing new facilities and hiring faculty. Drug abuse is not on their list of priorities. Resources for administrative staff involved with student conduct are low, and turnover is high.

Incidences of drug abuse are definitely lower at schools with stricter policies and rules in place, such as Georgia State University, but at any rate, school administrators cannot reasonably be expected to combat this problem alone. They need help from parents, former and current students, athletic and Greek organizations, and local, state and federal authorities.

75% of college students who drink and/or do drugs were set in their ways as teens.

tips how to stay sober in college white broken pills on the floor

Recognizing a Drug Problem

One of the ways to tell a student is abusing prescription drugs is if they’re going for refills more often than planned or expected. It’s not as simple as that, of course – prescription drug abuse and addiction are a complex issue.

We speak of prescription drug addiction when physical and psychological dependence evolves from substance abuse habits.  Some signs of prescription drug addiction are listed below.

Detecting Addiction to Prescription Drugs

  • The student experiences unbearable withdrawal symptoms when not taking the substance.
  • The student mixes prescription drugs with other substances to manage symptoms better.
  • Use of the drug affects academic performance adversely.
  • The person increases their dose to avoid withdrawal.

College students struggling with prescription drug addiction face various health risks, including an overdose that may be fatal. Measures can be taken to make sure one is using prescription drugs safely in order to prevent addiction.

Stimulants use in college students

How to Prevent Prescription Drug Addiction

  • Follow the directions on the package or the instructions given by the doctor.
  • Don’t change doses without talking to the doctor.
  • Do not use other people’s prescriptions.
  • Store prescription drugs safely.
  • Be aware of drug interactions.
  • Discard unused or expired medication according to FDA guidelines.

There are ways to tell alcohol use or use of other drugs has spiraled out of control. These are the typical signs.

  • Binge drinking is a clear sign of alcohol abuse. One standard drink is considered 400 ml of beer, 140 ml of wine, or 40 ml of hard liquor. According to the guidelines of the National Health and Medical Research Council, women who drink up to 2 standard drinks a day and men who drink up to 4 standard drinks a day face a low risk. This risk rises to medium for women drinking 2-4 drinks a day and men drinking 4-6 drinks a day and to high for over 4 and over 6 respectively. Binge drinking is described as four drinks or more in two hours for women and five drinks or more in two hours for men. This behavior clearly puts one in the high-risk category. If binge drinking continues over a few years, it will result in alcohol addiction in the vast majority of cases.

  • Rapid changes in the face, hair, and body strength are indicative of drug abuse. Dark circles around the eyes, sallow skin, and a pale face are some signs. An abuser will get shakes and tremors due to the substance or substances of choice’s adverse effects on the nervous system.

  • According to statistics of the NIAAA, every fourth college student who goes on regular alcoholic binges will begin to exhibit poor academic performance. Students will oversleep and miss class or just not go because they’re hung over. School work suffers greatly. They do badly on exams. It’s difficult to remember information with a mind that has become fuzzy from drug or alcohol abuse.

  • A student who abuses drugs or alcohol might start isolating themselves during a sober period. They might still go to class, but will have no energy left for anything else afterwards. Someone who is abusing substances will have no interest in extracurricular activities.

  • One who is abusing a substance will begin to experience mood swings that are decidedly out of character. This will be obvious to their family members and friends. A positive and energetic person may become negative and unresponsive if they’re drinking or doing drugs often. They will get depressed or irritable.

  • According to federal police authorities, more than 100,000 students across campuses nationwide are arrested in connection with substance abuse every year. The most common crimes are public drunkenness, DUI, and vandalism. The authorities’ statistics show that every fourth student who is a heavy drinker has committed vandalism in the past.

  • If someone is suddenly going to bed very early, sleeping in the day, or constantly up all night, they may be abusing a substance. The psychotropic properties of drugs cause brain changes that affect sleep patterns.

  • Substance abusers will lose interest in their old friends who don’t share their newfound passion. Someone who develops a problem will often build a social circle around the party. It’s not hard for this behavior to go unnoticed, as going out every night is normal in college. If a student is hanging out with people who are known to be abusing or dealing substances, he or she is probably doing it too.

  • When a student is high or drunk, they may do harmful things they don’t end up remembering afterwards. The following acts and behaviors commonly signal substance abuse. If a person has done two or more of these things, they are probably struggling with abuse or addiction.

    • Neglectful of people and property
    • Verbally, emotionally, and/or physically abusive
    • Speaks illogically, says hurtful things, and claims to have no memory of it afterwards
    • Gets in fights, assaults people
    • Prone to having unprotected sex
    • Driving drunk
    • Having sex and then not remembering (very likely due to drug abuse)
    • Committing / frequently reporting being a victim of sexual assault

The infographic below summarizes the most common signs of drug abuse.

signs of drug abuse infographics

Where Can College Students Get Help?

The above warning signs may indicate a student has a drug or drinking problem and needs professional help. They are advised to speak to a college counselor or local health center staff. Contacting an expert will help prevent addiction even in the case of severe abuse.

When a person realizes that they need help, they are encouraged to seek such only from a trusted drug rehab facility. These facilities’ programs often involve family members in the recovery process. A professional counselor will explain how the treatment can be expected to affect the education process. He or she will work with the student to make sure they aren’t falling behind at college, because this can have very negative effects, including relapse. Outpatient drug abuse centers make it possible to combine rehab and studies because the program is tailored to the student’s schedule.