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What Drugs Are College Students Abusing?

It seems almost impossible to talk about college without mentioning drugs. While college administrators, other students, and professors look the other way, drug abuse in colleges increases. We all know about fraternities and sororities hosting famous hazing and binge drinking parties that often include other drugs. But, what drugs are college students abusing? Read on to learn more about what we know about college students and drug abuse connections.

College Students and Drug Abuse

Estimates say that close to 49 percent of full-time college students drink and abuse drugs, including illegal and prescription drugs. While there isn’t a direct correlation, experts believe the combination of peer pressure and experimentation places most college students at a higher risk of engaging in risky substance use behaviors. 

The 5 Most Commonly Abused Drugs by College Students

There’s no doubt college students face an immense amount of pressure. Unfortunately, many of them turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the pressure. Although many college students use many medications, these are the most commonly abused on college campuses and their surroundings. 


It’s no surprise that alcohol leads the charts for the most commonly abused substances for college students. Perhaps one of the most widely available substances on campuses across the United States. About 9.9% of college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol for the first time in college. 

While alcohol is a legal substance for some students, the average age for a freshman student is 18, below the drinking age. Alcohol is the go-to substance for parties and even for dealing with the stressors of college. College students drink to relax, deal with social pressures, have fun, lower inhibitions, and reduce anxiety.

However, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that can have severe consequences. College students are likely to engage in binge drinking episodes, leading to injury, sexual assault, health problems, drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, and death. 


With the legalization of marijuana in many states, many college students are turning to the infamous drug. Often portrayed as non-addictive, we now know that more than half of marijuana users will develop an addiction. Almost 50% of college students have tried marijuana at least once. Estimates are 1 in 22 college students use marijuana regularly.

After alcohol, marijuana is probably the most commonly abused substance among college students. Marijuana is relatively inexpensive and can now be found through legal manners. It creates a euphoric feeling that’s usually heightened by the use of other substances like alcohol. Most students use it to ease anxiety, calm nerves, fit among peers and feel good. Nowadays, some might claim to use it for medicinal purposes, although many of those claims remain unproven.

Long-term marijuana use can lead to cognitive impairment, lowered immune system, low memory functions, respiratory issues, and more. Not to mention, it places people at a higher risk of engaging in risky behavior, including driving under the influence.

Prescription Drugs

Among the most significant trends in college is the misuse of prescription drugs. One study found that over 60 percent of young adults with a prescription for ADHD — more likely Adderall — were diverting it to other students without prescription.

While college students abuse many different drugs, Adderall and Ritalin are among the most commonly abused ones. Also known as study drugs, these prescription stimulants help block out distractions, making it easier to concentrate. Exam week is a popular time for students to start using these pills. Even though obtaining these pills without prescription is illegal, most students can find them on campus for anywhere between $3-$15, depending on demand. 

What’s more troublesome is the perception college students have about these drugs. Almost 81% of college students don’t see the danger of using stimulants as “study aids,” with over 30 percent of them reporting trying them at least once. Other prescription drugs commonly abused by college students include painkillers and central nervous system depressants like Valium and Xanax. 


With raves and festivals rising in popularity, party drugs like ecstasy are making a comeback. Due to ecstasy, emergency room visits have increased by more than 1,200% since Ecstasy became the “club drug” of choice at all-night raves. Even more dangerous, most ecstasy users will mix it with alcohol to enhance its effects. Users report intensified feelings and euphoria while combining these substances.

However, ecstasy causes an abnormal release of dopamine that goes downhill when the drug dissipates. Unfortunately, to maintain this “high” state, the user often takes more drugs to sustain the effects longer. Over time this builds up a tolerance that evolves into a dependence. Before they know it, to have “fun,” they have to be under the influence of these drugs. 

Ecstasy, like other stimulants, causes uncomfortable and dangerous withdrawal symptoms. It’s important to note that you don’t have to be an addict to experience withdrawal. Because ecstasy drains the brain of feel-good neurotransmitters, users often experience depressive episodes the days after consumption. In some cases, this depression is so severe that it leads to self-harm. 


Although ecstasy is often the go-to stimulant for college students, cocaine is also rising in popularity. One study shows most users (69%) started using cocaine after college entry. From year 1 to year 4, the lifetime prevalence of cocaine use tripled from 4% to 13%.

Not only is cocaine an illicit drug, but it’s one of the most highly addictive substances out there. One in four of those who try cocaine will become addicted to their life. Cocaine is usually portrayed as the “rich man’s drug” or a “fancy party drug” because it can be expensive. However, the movies’ portrayal has made the drug popular among college students looking to impress others at parties.

Poly-drug use, or the use of more than one drug at a time, is every day among college students, especially at the party or club scene, and increases risk factors. It’s not unlikely that a student goes to a party and tries cocaine, ecstasy, and alcohol in the same night. These drug combinations can be potentially deadly, even when only done once.

Signs of Addiction Among College Students

For a parent with a child in college, identifying the signs of drug abuse can be challenging. Even for friends of those in college, separating the “party-scene” from an addiction can be difficult. With drug abuse becoming more and more popular among college students, many are high-functioning addicts, recognizing an addiction can be challenging. 

Here are some warning signs to look for:

  • Sudden decline in academic performance
  • Drastic changes in weight
  • Unidentified pill bottles or other drug paraphernalia
  • Violent outbursts
  • Traffic accidents
  • Trouble with the law
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Skipping classes
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Decreased focus and forgetfulness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Depression
  • Isolation 

The Unknown Consequences of Addiction in College

Almost 22.9 percent of college students meet the criteria for drug or alcohol dependence or abuse. Beyond the immediate consequences of ubstance abuse, there’s one thing related to addiction in college; most people don’t know about:

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, accounting for over 1,100 student deaths annually. 

Researchers found a direct relationship between students who engage in regular abuse of drugs and alcohol with the rise in suicides among college students. They noted that these students are more likely to experience:

  • Isolation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Loss of work or school
  • Estrangement from friends and family members

These factors can usually increase someone’s development of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Besides, substance abuse increases someone’s impulsiveness and lowers inhibitions. The combination of these effects increases someone’s likelihood of acting on their suicidal thoughts or ideations. New evidence suggests that as many as 45 percent of deaths ruled overdoses could be suicides.

How Are Colleges Helping Students?

While some college administrators and professors look the other way, universities can’t continue to dismiss their campuses’ drug problem. Some colleges provide information about the dangers of substance abuse on their websites, but that’s hardly enough. 

Now colleges are starting to think more proactively. For example, the University of Pennsylvania began offering free counseling services to students. Other colleges are thinking more outside-the-box to help students cope with the pressure of academic performance. Some use massages, puppy therapy, dancing sessions, and other wellness initiatives during finals week to help students cope with stress and anxiety. 

Luckily, colleges across the nation are working on de-stigmatizing mental health, offering free counseling, talking about the realities of mental illness, and showing students healthy ways to care for their mental health without resorting to drugs or alcohol.

On- and Off-Campus Treatment Options

College students might get lost in their substance use disorder without realizing the help they need is closer than they think. Many colleges offer on-campus treatment options for those with a mild addiction case. These allow students to continue attending classes while seeking treatment for their illness. 

However, some students might benefit from off-campus treatment instead. It can be challenging to address a substance use disorder with ongoing triggers happening around them all the time. While many think taking a semester off from college will hurt their career, the truth couldn’t be further away from that. The reality is that getting help for your substance abuse problem will be the best thing you’ll ever do for your career. Taking a semester off from college to attend a treatment facility and deal with your addiction is the best decision you can make for yourself.

Getting Help

At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, we’ve seen firsthand how college students can go down the grown path and let drugs and alcohol dominate their lives. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please know there’s help available. Contact us today to learn more about our addiction treatment programs. Stop delaying your wellness and start walking towards recovery today.

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