Sep 9, 2019 | By John Ferreira

The Dangers of Substance Abuse In College

Collegiate Recovery

substance abuse in college

College is an extremely important time in many young people’s lives. They are at an amazing transitionary period where they are going from teens to adults. They may be living independently for the first time ever. All of the decisions they make are on their own accord and their parent’s input on their choices is at an all-time low. Currently, there are around 16 million people aged 15-24 who are enrolled in college. Each one of these students is following their unique path that will hopefully lead to their dreams being fulfilled. Sadly, some of these young people will have some speed bumps on their road to adulthood. Substance abuse in college is a serious issue and can easily change the course of a student’s future.  

Alcohol and marijuana are the most commonly used substances among college students. It is completely normal for young people to dabble with these substances at this point in their lives. College students will often experiment with mood and mind-altering substances while in school due to the lack of supervision that they are experiencing for the first time in their lives. This new found freedom can be detrimental to some as they find that their actions have fewer consequences than they did while living with their parents. 

Substance Abuse in College

Some students will put their education first and foremost. Sure, they may have a few drinks on weekends, but they always drink in moderation and make sure that they have all the necessary work done to continue on the right path. Some students may over-indulge a bit with alcohol and will face some mild issues related to their drinking. They may miss a few classes and see a decline in their grades due to their drinking; this is very common for freshmen. Hopefully, they realize the problems that their use is causing and take action to correct it. Then some students will plan their days around getting drunk and/or high. These students can face a variety of issues due to their actions. Their grades decline and their social relationships have been damaged. They may even find themselves with legal issues and in trouble with the school which can result in them being kicked out of college. 

College students who struggle with substance abuse issues should seek professional help for their problems. Waiting to get help will only result in more issues and can lead to drastic life changes. Getting kicked out of school or facing serious legal repercussions is absolutely a potential result of substance abuse. If you or someone you care about are currently struggling please get help from a rehab center. This is not something that one should try to do alone, though, entering a treatment center is strongly suggested by most medical and addiction professionals.

College Substance Abuse Surveys and Reports

Students in college who abuse drugs or alcohol are more probable to develop issues related to addiction than those who do not use or only use substances occasionally. Not only can substance abuse cause a wide variety of personal problems for the individual, but it also has extensive adverse effects on society as a whole. When someone abuses drugs and/or alcohol they will become a danger to themselves and to the people around them. Driving while under the influence results in hundreds of thousands of accidents every year. People hooked on drugs will often result to crime to support their addiction. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) teams up with the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ) to determine the number of college-age students who use and abuse mood and mind-altering substances. They work together to gather, analyzes and disseminates behavioral health data from sources such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health commonly called NSDUH. NSDUH is a national data collection that provides insight into the use and treatment of substances among civilian, non-institutionalized populations over the age of 12. 

The most recent data regarding college students aged 18-22 was recently gathered and reported to the public. NSDUH participants are questioned about their previous year and month of alcohol and illicit substance use. This is broken up into nine different categories: marijuana, cocaine (which includes crack), heroin, hallucinogens (such as acid and mushrooms, and inhalants, as well as the non-medical use of prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives. Though many laws have changed over the past decade in various states, marijuana is still classified as an illicit drug because it remains illegal to use marijuana on the federal level. 

The study was done with the help of around 26,000 students in college who were between the ages of 18-22 during the time of the study. 21,000 of the students surveyed were full-time students and just under 5,000 were part-time students. These sample sizes are used to represent an annual average of 9 million full-time students and 2 million part-time students. This report presents the estimated number of first-time users of substances per college enrollment status on an average day. Due to the fact that there are more full-time college students than part-time college students, the number of full-time college students who are trying substances for the first time will be higher than the number of part-time college students who first use substances.

Substance Abuse Statistics for College Students

Over the year leading up to the study:

  • 2,179 full-time college students reported that they drank alcohol for the first time that year.
  • 1,326 college students who reported that they used an illicit drug for the first time that year.
  • 453 part-time college students had drank alcohol for the first time that year.
  • 174 part-time college students reported that they used an illicit drug for the first time ever that year.

Out of the 9,000,000 full-time college students in the United States:

  • Over 12% drank alcohol on a daily basis over the past year.
  • Nearly 750,000 students reported that they used marijuana on an average day over the past year.
  • Out of the 2,000,000 part-time college students in the US, approximately 240,000 drank alcohol and 195,020 used marijuana on an average day over the past year.

More than one-third of full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 reported binge drinking in the past thirty days. Binge drinking is when someone has a large amount of alcohol in a single day and becomes intoxicated. For men, binge drinking is defined as having five or more alcoholic drinks within a two hour period, for women it is four drinks. While occasional binge drinking is not healthy, it can be normal for college-aged students. When intoxicated the risk of sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy, violence, and other problems will rise significantly.

About twenty percent of college students reported that they have used an illicit drug in the last month. Substance use is one of the most severe public health problems for young individuals in the United States, generating adverse health, social and financial implications for college students, their families, communities, schools and the entire nation. 

Commonly Abused Substances in College

The most popular drugs for college students are cocaine, marijuana, Adderall, molly (MDMA), Xanax, and opiates. Some of these substances are much more addictive and harmful than others. While it does have some addictive properties, people who use marijuana regularly will typically face fewer problems than someone with opiate or cocaine related abuse issues. According to the CDC:

“70,237 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in 2017. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths increased significantly by 9.6% from 2016 (19.8 per 100,000) to 2017 (21.7 per 100,000). Opioids—mainly synthetic opioids (other than methadone)—are currently the main driver of drug overdose deaths. Opioids were involved in 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017 (67.8% of all drug overdose deaths).


Adderall is a prescription drug that is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. It is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, which are classified as central nervous system stimulants. Taking Adderall may help increase the ability to focus, pay attention and control behavior. The drug increases the activity of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine and will stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. College students will often use Adderall to help them focus and stay awake, which will allow them to cram for an upcoming exam. 

Some students will abuse this drug for recreational purposes and seek out it’s powerful mood and mind altering properties. Just because a doctor can prescribe this drug does not mean that it is harmless. Adderall is an amphetamine and is highly addictive and the number of college students who are misusing this drug have risen dramatically over the past 20 years. A study of more than 9,000 college students from across the United States found that more than 50% of students with an Adderall prescription were asked to sell the medication to peers and friends.


Molly is a popular party drug that has become a more prevalent issue recently. Molly, also known as MDMA or ecstasy, is a synthetic drug that changes mood and perception. It is comparable in chemical composition to hallucinogens and stimulants, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). When someone takes molly they will simulate their emotions and will have intense sensations of pleasure and joy while simultaneously distorting time and sensory perception by raising serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine concentrations in the brain. MDMA is particularly popular at clubs and music festivals because it allows people to remain up all night dancing. It is typically taken orally and sold in little capsules, which makes the drug easy to hide and take.

Other Substances

Both Adderall and molly are addictive mentally, but they do not possess many physically addictive properties. Recently, some extremely dangerous prescription drugs that have become more popular among college students. Prescription opiates and benzodiazepines are now abundant at universities throughout the United States. Pills like Percocet, Xanax, Klonopin, and Vicodin are highly addictive, both physically and mentally. College students can easily obtain benzodiazepines from a doctor or therapist. Xanax is currently the most prescribed medication in the United States. This pill is intended to treat severe anxiety, panic attacks, and seizures, but it is often sought out for recreational purposes. Even worse, students often combine benzos other substances like alcohol. Mixing benzos with alcohol is extremely dangerous, and can even lead to heart failure and brain failure which can be fatal.

The US is currently in the middle of the worst drug crisis that it has ever faced. The opioid epidemic has caused widespread devastation in every corner of our nation. College-aged students are among the most widely affected demographics by this drug class. Last year there were over 47,000 overdose deaths linked to opiates, that’s more than 100 people per day. Opiates are possibly the most serious substance abuse threat for college students. These drugs are highly addictive, both physically and mentally. Some people who struggle with addiction issues report feeling hooked on opiates after just one use. Once someone becomes physically dependent on opioids it will be very difficult for them to get clean without the help of a rehab center.

How to Prevent Substance Abuse in College

Combating substance abuse among college students has been a big concern for our country for years. Prevention is frequently discussed and researched by leading medical and addiction professionals throughout the United States. One of the primary problems is that the data on success rates on prevention methods tend to be pretty difficult to confirm and analyze. Using just one method of prevention is quite rare and will only lower overall success rates. Due to this fact, many colleges will take multiple preventative measures to play it safe. It’s always better to have more plans and actions in effect than just one. There are college substance abuse prevention methods that tend to be more popular than others.

One of the most common forms of prevention is educating students about the negative health effects of drinking and substance abuse. By teaching students about the drastic consequences that their body and mind can face if they are to abuse substances will often help them make educated decisions. Of course, this isn’t a 100% effective method, but professionals believe it helps lower the number of alcohol and substance abuse-related issues. By understanding what excessive alcohol consumption can do to their bodies, college students may choose to set a limit on how much alcohol they consume.

There are also laws in effect that help lower overall substance abuse rates among college students. When this is combined with strict rule enforcement by the school, those who break these laws/rules will face some serious repercussions. Many laws already exist throughout the United States that are designed to lower the amount of underage drinking and substance abuse that takes place. It is important that bars, clubs, and liquor stores near the college strictly enforce the legal drinking age. This has shown to be one of the most effective ways to reduce alcohol-related issues, especially in large college towns. Local store owners, restaurant managers, and school administrators can help cut down on the amount of alcohol and substance abuse-related issues by heavily enforcing these federal laws and campus rules consistently. 

Restrictions on bars are imperative to help lower alcohol abuse related issues among college students. It is important to put regulations on how close bars and liquor stores are to each other and the campus. When there are a series of bars in a row on a single street the risk of alcohol abuse in that area will rise. Drug use and abuse are also common in areas where drinking is excessively prevalent. Studies have shown that incidents involving alcohol are more common in places where special prices on drinks are heavily advertised, particularly when targeting college students. 

It is important that peers, parents, and professors question the student’s understanding of the effects of substances on their personal lives. Many college students will do drugs or consume alcohol because they believe it will help their social standing. They believe it makes them more sociable and that it can even increase their chances of a sexual encounter. Many students will decrease their use of drugs and alcohol when they recognize that this is not only untrue, but may actually have the opposite impact. This is especially the case for those who abuse drugs or drink in excess on a regular basis. These people will often find themselves alone and even ostracized by their peers as their substance abuse becomes a more serious problem. 

Helping a College Student with Substance Abuse Issues

Any college student who struggles with substance abuse issues will face a variety of difficulties in their life. There are warning signs of addiction that are easy to identify and will help you spot when a friend or family member is struggling. If drugs and/or alcohol have become an issue, the person battling substance abuse may start isolating or will drastically change their friend group to match their new life choices. If their old friends don’t use drugs or drink as often as they do, the individual will often seek out new friends who do. If they cannot find a group that also uses substances in excess they might begin isolating and using alone. 

Substance abuse in college will often lead to a dramatic change in that student’s grades. The time that they used to put toward school work and studying has now been dedicated to getting high and drunk. Hangovers can easily make them miss class which can lead to multiple absences. This can result in them getting dropped from the class and potentially even kicked out of the school.

Someone who struggles with substance abuse can easily find themselves with legal issues. While under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, our brain’s ability to make reasonable decisions will drop substantially. Driving under the influence is very common for college students with substance abuse issues. If they are caught operating a motor vehicle that can face some serious fines, jail time, and expulsion from school. 

If narcotic drugs are the primary issue and have been regularly abused for months, then the struggling person’s entire life will change. Being physically dependent on a drug will change the way that person acts and reacts to everyday situations. Their main thought will always be “where can I get it (my drug) and how will I afford it?”. This will often lead the individual to steal, lie, and manipulate the people around them to support their addiction. 

No matter what the substance being abused is, some physical and mental changes are easy to notice. Some common symptoms can include:

  • A lack of care about their personal hygiene
  • Gaining or losing weight in a short amount of time
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Increased depression and anxiety

If you or someone you care about are currently in college and struggling with substance abuse issues, please seek out professional help. Overcoming this alone is not only difficult, but it is also dangerous and rarely successful. There are treatment centers that are designed for young adults and that will cater to their specific needs. If you have any questions or would like help locating a rehab program near you, please do not hesitate to contact Sober Nation’s toll-free hotline at: 866-293-3799. Calls into our phone line are always free of charge and your conversation is absolutely confidential. 

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