College is a time for exploration. It frees students from constant, direct parental oversight, giving them the opportunity to make life decisions on their own, probably for the first time. This new-found liberty, however, comes at a critical time when teens are transitioning to adulthood and are open to new ideas and experimentation (Espenshade & Radford, 2013).
Living independently opens an exciting world of new experiences and self-discovery. Many relinquish their long-held beliefs, attitudes, motivations, and expectations that influence their behavior. However, this independence may also lead them to succumb to peer influence, stereotypes, and myths of fellow students who explicitly state that “college is a time to party” (Cui & Fincham, 2010). As soon as overindulgence in partying takes over, drug abuse slowly becomes the norm, and the academic performance of up to 25% of students bears the brunt (Dennis, n.d.).
This post aims to collate and discuss key college drug abuse statistics. The goal is to bring to light figures and data that can help students, parents, and educators proactively understand what constitutes substance abuse in college. All in all, this should help parents and educators recognize, understand, and combat drug abuse in college. Besides, the information will help students keep their own behavior in check and prevent drug abuse from affecting their academic performance.
College Drug Abuse Statistics Table of Contents
- General Drug Abuse Statistics
- Commonly Abused Drugs
- Why Do College Students Use Drugs?
- Attitudes and Beliefs About Drug Use Among College Students
- The Social Context of College Drug Abuse
- Effects of College Drug Abuse Statistics
General Drug Abuse Statistics
Drug abuse is a menacing issue that has held hostage the lives of many young adults. As you will notice, nearly half of young adults are grappling with drug abuse (Schulenberg et al., 2018). In addition, data show more than 17.4 million adolescents and young adults between 12-25 years of age in the United States are illicit drug users (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2018).
According to a Monitoring The Future study on drug abuse, the problem begins as early as the 8th grade and gathers pace in the 10th and/or 12th grades before becoming full-blown in college (Schulenberg, et al., 2018). The same study found that college students are the worst-hit among all school goers. And, interestingly, female students are slightly more likely (by 0.2%) to use drugs than their male counterparts.
Further, the study intimates that gateway drugs ring the minds of college students with a better percentage, showing an inherent liking for marijuana and alcohol. But this doesn’t mean hard drugs like cocaine and heroin are out of the equation.
The following statistics reveal the annual prevalence of illicit drug use among college students:
College Drug Abuse Statistics by Age, Gender, and Year in College
- In 2013, college students who reported substance use averaged 4.94 days of use.
- Interestingly, 43% of all 19- to 28-year-olds are drug abusers.
- In 2018, the annual prevalence of drug abuse was highest among college students (45%), followed by 12th graders (39%), 10th graders (30%), and 8th graders (13%).
- In addition, 18% of college students have used an illicit drug other than marijuana in the past month.
- In an 8-year longitudinal study, the annual prevalence of marijuana use peaked at 47% in year 3.
- In 2018, the annual prevalence of drug abuse among full-time college students was 44.9%.
- The annual prevalence of drug abuse by female college students was higher (45%) than that of male students (44.8%).
- Besides, the annual prevalence of use of the various drugs among full-time male college students is as follows: alcohol (73.7%), marijuana (42.5%), Adderall (14.6%), MDMA (7.2%), cocaine (7%), LSD (6.8%), and tranquilizers (3.8%).
- On the other hand, the annual prevalence of use of various drugs among full-time female college students is as follows alcohol (75.1%), marijuana (42.2%), Adderall (8.8%), cocaine (4.3%), tranquilizers (3.3%), MDMA (2.7%), and LSD (2.6%).
- Additionally, the most commonly abused substances among medical students in the U.S. in 2016 were alcohol (91.3%), marijuana (26.2%), tobacco (17.3%), amphetamines (6%), sedatives (2.3%), and cocaine (2.3%).
- Almost 30% of students entering college have used marijuana (Suerken et al., 2016).
- One-third of currently-enrolled college students have reported consuming marijuana every year (Johnston et al., 2016).
Source: Monitoring The Future (2018)
Commonly Abused Drugs
College is, without a doubt, one of the most common places illicit drugs are readily found, sold, and abused. As students leave the safety and security of their homes, they undergo incredible challenges and begin to transition to adulthood. This happens in a new environment, which, even though it is labeled a “drug-free zone,” can sometimes prove to be the exact opposite.
As a result, students who are already into drug abuse get increased opportunities to escalate the behavior. On the other hand, those with clean slates are welcomed into sororities and fraternities famous for partying and episodes of hazing, which often involve drug abuse.
According to Hernandez & Nelson (2010), the most misused prescription drugs among college students in the U.S. are:
- tranquilizers, e.g., diazepam and alprazolam
- sedatives, e.g. triazolam and phenobarbital
- opioid analgesics, e.g., hydrocodone and codeine
- stimulants, e.g., methylphenidate and amphetamines.
Although many drugs are frequently used, alcohol remains the substance of choice for many college students (Schulenberg, et al., 2018). But, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, there is a rapid increase in marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and other illicit drug use (McClellan & Stringer, 2011).
Speculation aside, this section aims to lay bare facts and data about the most commonly abused drug in college. It culls relevant statistics from reputable organizations to paint the complete picture of the college drug abuse scene.
College Marijuana Abuse Statistics
- The annual marijuana use among college students increased by 7.1% between 2013 and 2018.
- One in 17 college students reports daily or nearly daily use of marijuana, compared to one in nine non-college teenagers.
- In 2018, the annual marijuana use among college students was 42.6% compared to 42.5% of non-college teenagers.
- Besides, marijuana vaping among college students more than doubled between 2017 and 2018. In fact, 10.9% of college vaped marijuana in 2018 compared to 5.2% in 2017.
- In 2018, 45% of incoming college students had used marijuana at least once during the past year.
- In addition, in 2018, 68% of college students had used marijuana at least once in their lives by age 25.
College Prescription Pills, “Study Drugs” and Other Stimulants Abuse Statistics
- In December 2013, pain medication was the most commonly used drug among college students (22% in the past month).
- The use of Adderall (popular study drug) among college students in 2018 was 11.1% compared to 8.1% among non-college teenagers.
- There is a significant gender difference in Adderall use. Male college students have a higher proclivity for Adderall use at 14.6%, compared to females at 8.8%.
- In an 8-year longitudinal study, the use of prescription stimulants peaked at 21% in year 3.
- In 2018, 35% of college students had used prescription pills non-medically at least once in their lives by age 25.
- Approximately, a third of college students abuse prescription pills during their time in college.
- Many prescription drug abusers mix them with alcohol or other substances.
- More than 33% of college students have given away or sold their medication.
- Besides, about 50% of college students with prescription pills for ADHD were persuaded by their peers to sell, give, or trade their medication.
- The annual prevalence of nonmedical use of Adderall among college students was 11.1% in 2018.
- The annual prevalence of crystal methamphetamine or ice use among college students in 2018 was 1% or less.
Source: DrugAbuse.gov (2018) Designed by
College Party or Club Drug Abuse Statistics
- Nicotine vaping among college students increased by 9.4% between 2017 and 2018 to reach 15.5%.
- On the contrary, Opioid misuse saw a significant five-year drop from 5.4% in 2013 to 2.7% in 2018.
- In general, the prevalence of the use of hallucinogens (MDMA, LSD, and salvia) among college students in 2018 was 5.2%.
- The annual prevalence of LSD use among college students was 4.2% in 2018, whereas that of MDMA was 4.4%.
- The annual abuse levels of MDMA among college students in 2018 was 2.8%.
- The use of amphetamine among college students increased from 3.9% in 1996 to 11.1% in 2002, before steadily falling to 8.3% in 2018.
- Besides, the annual prevalence of cocaine use among college students was 5.3%.
College Alcohol Abuse Statistics
Studies indicate that alcohol and drug use among college students can result in poor academic performance and increase the risk of sickness, injury, or death (Cremeens et al., 2013, as cited in Hellenbrand et al., 2018).
- The annual prevalence use of alcohol among college students was 74.6% in 2018.
- Binge drinking among college students in 2018 was 28% compared to 25% among non-college teens. This is the first time the binge-drinking rate among college students was below 30%.
- According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 54.9% of full-time college students drank alcohol in the past month.
- Also, according to the 2018 NSDUH, 36.9% of college students binge drank in the past month, compared to 27.9% of non-college teens.
- A 2014 study revealed that more than 60% of full-time college students used alcohol within a month. 39% of this number reported binge drinking, whereas 13% admitted to heavy alcohol use.
Percentage of respondents who drank within a month
Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2018) Designed by
Why Do College Students Use Drugs?
Beyond learning and planning for the future, college is about testing the limits and partying for many students. But, finding the perfect balance between the two often proves to be a stern challenge, especially with the increased responsibilities that come alongside the new-found freedom.
As studies get tougher and myths become more prevalent, the socialized thinking that substance use is normal, natural, and expected part of being a student becomes the new norm (Cuban, 2017). Consequently, students begin to find solace in substance use for multiple reasons.
This section provides some of the key factors that propel college students towards the dark world of drug abuse.
Common Reasons for Drug Abuse
- Based on statistical data on risk factors for substance use provided by Scielo, 96.6% of students at the University of Sao Paulo claimed that influence by friends is the biggest risk factor for the consumption of psychoactive drugs. Other risk factors include curiosity (93.3%), search for fun (93.3%), school-related stress (86.6%), living away from family (80%), and media influence (56.6%).
- Approximately 40% of lifetime non-medical undergraduate users reported using prescription opioids to relieve pain.
- The most commonly cited motives for drug use among college students include: boost concentration (65.2%), improve study (59.8%), enhance alertness (47.5%), get high (31%), and experimentation (29.9%).
- In 2014, 77.8% University of Mainz students reported having used illicit stimulants, 38.9% prescription stimulants to enhance academic performance.
- In addition, 22.2% of the University of Mainz students used a combination of prescription and illicit stimulants for academic performance enhancement.
Attitudes and Beliefs About Drug Use Among College Students
Attitudes and beliefs influence whether a college student will use marijuana, alcohol, or any other illicit drug. Particularly, the extent to which they believe that using a specific substance in certain amounts or frequencies might harm them has an impact on the use of a particular drug (Schulenberg, et al., 2018). By looking at the shift in attitude and beliefs, parents and educators can foretell changes in actual drug-using behavior among college students.
This section gathers data about the attitudes and beliefs of young adults—people between 18 and 30 years. While the data isn’t specifically focused on college students, it offers vital insights into a critical age group that mostly constitutes the college-going population. As such, the results can be extrapolated to college students to get a sneak peek into their attitudes and beliefs about drug use.
Personal Disapproval of Drug Use
- About 93% of young adults disapproved of the use of all illicit drugs other than marijuana.
- The prevailing belief that marijuana is very safe fuels the increased use of the substance on college campuses.
- Marijuana disapproval remains low compared to other illicit drugs. In fact, 97.7% of young adults disapprove of the use of heroin, cocaine (96.7%), LSD (94.9%), MDMA (89.9%), and marijuana (62.6%).
- In 2018, regarding marijuana use, 35% to 40% of young adults claimed their close friends would disapprove of them trying it. Moreover, two-thirds thought their close friends would disapprove of the regular use of marijuana.
- In addition, about half of young adults (18 to 30 years) thought their friends would disapprove of them drinking five or more beers once or twice every weekend.
- Besides, the belief among college students that their peers are active marijuana users leads to the normalization of its consumption.
Source: Monitoring The Future
Perceived Harmfulness of Drugs
- On average, 23.7% of young adults (19 to 30-year-olds) think people who use marijuana regularly risk harming themselves physically or in other ways.
- Besides, in 2018, 63.4% of young adults aged 18 to 25 years perceived great risk from daily binge drinking.
- On the other hand, 65.4% of young adults (19 to 30-year-olds) think people who use LSD regularly risk harming themselves.
- Besides, 64.9% of young adults (19 to 30-year-olds) think people who use MDMA occasionally risk harming themselves.
- 84.9% of young adults (19 to 30-year-olds) think people who use cocaine regularly risk harming themselves.
- 90.9% of young adults (19 to 30-year-olds) think people who use heroin regularly risk harming themselves.
The Social Context of College Drug Abuse
College time means students have to leave the confines of their parent’s guidance and explore the world independently. This means building a new support network that mostly includes peers who share different opinions, beliefs, and attitudes about life, studies, and drug use. This creates a peculiar social context with unique norms and modeling that impact the likelihood of a student using or abstaining from the use of drugs.
Much like the previous section, this part explores the social context in which young adults aged 18 to 30 years find themselves. But, since the data covers a demographic that comprises college and university students, it’s relevant to this post. The statistics reveal important insights on direct exposure to substance use by friends and the perceived availability of drugs among college students.
The Extent of Student Exposure to Drug Through Peers
- In 2018, 78% of teens aged 18 years had at least one friend who used an illicit drug. On the other hand, the number increased to 86% for young adults (23 to 26 years olds).
- Besides, in 2018, between 14% and 27% of young adults (19- to 30-year-olds) said most or all of their friends use one or more illicit drugs.
- In addition, 76% of 19- to 22-year-olds and 74% of 23- to 26-year-olds said they had direct exposure to people using an illicit drug.
- Moreover, 79% of 19- to 22-year-olds say they have a friend who uses marijuana.
- Also, 72% of 19- to 22-year-olds and 79% of 23- to 26-year-olds have at least some friends who drink alcohol at least once every week.
- 15% of 18-year-olds, 20% of young adults (aged 19-22), and 22% of 23- to 26-year-olds said that they have a friend who uses narcotics other than heroin.
How many young adults have friends who drink alcohol?
Source: Monitoring The Future (2018) Designed by
Perceived Availability of Drugs Among College Students
- In 2018, marijuana was the most readily available of all illicit drugs. To suffice, 79.7% of 18-year-olds, 84.6% of 19- to 22-year-olds, and 88.1% of 23- to 26-year-olds said marijuana was easy to get.
- Besides, 28% of 18-year-olds, 33.3% of 19- to 22-year-olds, and 27.2% of 23- to 26-year-olds said LSD was easy to get.
- Moreover, 27.7% of 18-year-olds, 38.7% of 19- to 22-year-olds, and 33.6% of 23- to 26-year-olds said MDMA or ecstasy was easy to get.
- Also, 28.1% of 18-year-olds, 40.5% of 19- to 22-year-olds, and 38.6% of 23- to 26-year-olds said cocaine was readily available.
- 18.4% of 18-year-olds, 19.2% of 19- to 22-year-olds, and 22.3% of 23- to 26-year-olds said it was easy to get heroin.
- 13% of 18-year-olds, 15% of 19- to 22-year-olds, and 14.4% of 23- to 26-year-olds said it was easy to get tranquilizers.
Source: Monitoring The Future
Effects of College Drug Abuse Statistics
Habitual choices are highly likely when youths act in familiar circumstances where there is a strong correspondence between personal and perceived moral norms of the setting (Piquero, 2015). Choices, however, have consequences that can be limiting or enabling. In this sense, college students who choose to abuse drugs open up the possibilities of limiting consequences.
The choices students freely make become a significant part of the context for the next set of actions. Consequently, some begin to skip class and spend less time studying, which ultimately results in lower grades. In some extreme cases, drug abuse can lead to dropping out of college, sexual assault, and death.
Consequences of Drug Abuse
- 69% of college students who claimed lifetime use of an illicit drug reported at least one negative consequence in the course of their lifetime.
- On average, 20% of college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder.
- Also, in a study on the consequences of substance use among medical students in the U.S. in 2016, the consequences experienced by students include hangover (66.8%), nausea or vomiting (45.3%), doing something regrettable (24.1%), memory loss (22.3%), fight or argument (18.9%), criticism by a friend (16.4%), missing class (13.2%), poor performance on a test or important project (8.8%).
- Besides, binge drinkers are approximately six times more likely than those who consume alcohol but never binged to fail a test or perform poorly on projects as a result of drinking.
- In addition, binge drinkers are five times more likely to have missed a class.
- Approximately 110,000 college students are arrested every year for alcohol-related violations such as drunk driving and public drunkenness.
- Approximately 1,825 college students die each year because of accidental, alcohol-related injuries.
Keeping Drug Abuse in Colleges at Bay
Drug abuse among college students is prevalent, and responding to the risks caused by this vice has been a monstrous task for parents, students, and educators alike. The use of illicit drugs and inappropriate use of licit drugs have continued to torment college students for years now. This has been going on despite the rigid disapproval of the use of drugs by a good number of young adults.
As highlighted in this post, excessive freedom blended with peer influence and school-related stress has played a huge role in escalating drug abuse on college campuses. But truth be told, many of the factors that propel students to the dark world of drug abuse are entirely preventable. The success of the prevention measures, however, solely boils down to the collective effort of educators, parents, and community leaders.
Parents ought to extensively research and learn the major risk factors for drug abuse, so they can explain them to their children in black and white. In addition, when students join college, parents should take it upon themselves to keep close tabs on the child’s life, know their new friends, and monitor behavior and attitudes keenly. On the other hand, educators and community leaders should be more proactive in their thinking, selection, planning, and delivery of prevention programs.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse outlines 16 principles that schools, parents, educators, and the community at large can use to prevent drug abuse among adolescents and young adults (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2003). These interventions help reduce or reverse the risk factors and enhance protective factors to curtail drug abuse. Stakeholders should not stop at this because the drug abuse scene is continually evolving. As such, parents and educators must endeavor to conduct rigorous research and create innovative ways to halt it.
- Addiction Center. (2020). College Students and Drug Abuse. Addiction Center.
- Addiction Center. (2020). Drug Abuse and College Campuses. Addiction Center.
- Arria, A. M., Garnier-Dykstra, L. M., Caldeira, K. M., Vincent, K. B., Winick, E. R., & O’Grady, K. E. (2013). Drug use patterns and continuous enrollment in college: Results from a longitudinal study. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 74 (1), 71–83. https://doi.org/10.15288/jsad.2013.74.71
- Arria, A.M., Caldeira, K. M., Allen, H. K., Budbee, B. A., Vincent, K. B., & O’Grady, K. E. (2018). Prevalence and incidence of drug use among college students: An 8-year longitudinal analysis. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 43 (6), 711-718. https://doi.org/10.1080/00952990.2017.1310219
- Ashley Addiction Treatment. (2018). College Student Drug Use Statistics [Infographic]. Ashley.
- Ayala, E. E., Roseman, D., Winseman, J. S., & Mason, H. R. C. (2017). Prevalence, perceptions, and consequences of substance use in medical students. Medical Education Online, 22 (1). https://doi.org/10.1080/10872981.2017.1392824
- Balthazar, E. B., Gaino, L. V., Almeida, L. Y., Oliveira, J. L., & Souza, J. (2018). Risk factors for substance use: perception of student leaders. Revista Brasileira de Enfermagem, 71 (5). https://doi.org/10.1590/0034-7167-2017-0587
- Cuban, B. (2017). The Addicted Lawyer: Tales of the Bar, Booze, Blow, and Redemption. Google Books
- Cui, M., & Fincham, F. D. (2010). Romantic Relationship in Emerging Adulthood. Google Books
- Dennis, K. (n.d.). Substance abuse in college. AffordableCollegesOnline.
- Drugabuse.gov. (2018). Drug Use Trends Among College-Age Adults (19–22). Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
- Espenshade, T. J., & Radford, A. W. (2013). No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Google Books
- Hellenbrand, M., Kammer, R.T., Much, K., Reif, C., & Follick, B. (2018). Student perceptions toward changes in a university’s alcohol and other drugs policy. College Student Affairs Journal, 36 (2), 97-109. https://doi.org/10.1353/csj.2018.0018
- Hildt, E., Lieb, K., & Franke, A. G. (2014). Life context of pharmacological academic performance enhancement among university students – a qualitative approach. BMC Medical Ethics 15, 23. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6939-15-23
- Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E. & Miech, R. A. (2014). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2013: Volume 2, College students and adults ages 19–55. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research. University of Michigan
- Lipari, R. N., & Jean-Francois, B. (2016). A day in The Life of College Student Aged 18 to 22: Substance Use Facts. Bethesda, MD: SAMHSA.
- McCabe, S. E., Cranford, J. A., Boyd, C. J., & Teter, C. J. (2006). Motives, diversion, and routes of administration associated with nonmedical use of prescription opioids. Addictive Behaviors, 32 (3), 562-575. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2006.05.022
- McClellan, G., & Stringer, J. (2011). The Handbook of Student Affairs Administration. Washington, DC: NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Google Books
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2018). College Drinking. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (2003). Preventing Drug Use Among Children and Adolescents, 2nd ed. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
- Palmer, R. S., McMahon, T. J., Moreggi, D. I., Rounsaville, B. j., & Ball, S. A. (2012). College student drug use: Patterns, concerns, consequences, and interest in intervention. Journal of College Student Development, 53 (1), 124-132. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2012.0014
- Piquero, A. R. (2015). The Handbook of Criminological Theory. New York, NY: Wiley. Google Books
- Schulenberg, J. E., Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Miech, R. A., & Patrick, M. E. (2019). Monitoring the Future National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2018: Volume II, College Students and Adults Ages 19-60. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. North Bethesda, MD: SAMHSA.
- Suerken, C. K., Reboussin, B. A., Egan, K. L., Sutfin, E. L„ Wagoner, K. G., Spangler, J., & Wolfson, M. (2016). Marijuana use trajectories and academic outcomes among college students. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 162, 137-145. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2016.02.041
- Teter, C. J., McCabe, S. E., LaGrange, K., Cranford, J. A., & Boyd, C. J. (2006). Illicit use of specific prescription stimulants among college students: prevalence, motives, and routes of administration. Pharmacotherapy, 26 (10), 1501-2510. https://doi.org/10.1592/phco.26.10.1501
- The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention. (2008). Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Among First-year College Students. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.
- PAW (2007). Prescription Drug Misuse Among College Students. Morgantown, WV: Preventing Prescription Abuse in the Workplace/West Virginia University.