Substance Abuse in College Students

College is often the first time students consider abusing substances, including both legal and illegal drugs.

In a study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) a few years ago, researchers found that of 9 million full-time college students, 1.2 million drank alcohol and over 700,000 smoked marijuana. Six percent of the 9 million used drugs for the first time.

In this article, we’re taking a closer look at substance abuse in college students.

Substance Abuse in College Students

On an average day, researchers found over 1,300 used an illicit drug for the first time. Researchers further explained what students were trying for the first time. While alcohol and marijuana the highest used substances, they weren’t the only ones.

Other substances used for the first time by college students included hallucinogens, prescription pain relievers, cocaine, stimulants, inhalants, methamphetamine, heroin, and other illicit drugs.

When discussing substance abuse in college students, it is important to define the term “abuse”. Some college students try drugs and alcohol do not go on to abuse them or develop an addiction. However, there are many others who do.

Use vs. Abuse vs. Addiction

When a student uses a drug or drinks alcohol, they may do so to the point of intoxication. They may also do this more than once while they are in college. But when their use is on an occasional or rare basis, they are less likely to begin abusing the substance or becoming addicted.

Abusing substances means the college student participates in alcohol or drug use on a frequent basis. They may even binge use. Meaning, they ingest many substances in a short time. They then become extremely intoxicated to the point of losing speech and motor skills.

Abusing substances can take place when students get drunk or high several times in a week. Substance abuse can affect a student’s ability to attend class, complete assignments, and may even cause them legal problems. Consistent abuse can lead to addiction.

Addiction of substances means the college student can no longer function without using drugs or alcohol. Mentally, they struggle to quit using and physically, they notice serious signs of withdrawal when they try to stop.

Once you determine if the student is using, abusing or addicted to a substance, you can begin to focus on the substance itself and the best way to get help for the student.

The recent Monitoring the Future Survey results analyzed various substances, including vaping and e-cigarettes, to review how prevalent they are among college students.

Vaping with E-cigarettes

Surveys have revealed that college students are using the e-cigarettes to vape both nicotine and marijuana. It was noted that 5.2 percent of the students researched were vaping this way. While this is lower than non-college young adults, it is still a high number.


Alcohol use among college students is much higher than non-college young adults. Sixty-two percent of college students are drinking alcohol. They are even mixing alcohol with caffeine drinks, which can be even more dangerous.


Marijuana use among college students continues to rise and is at an extreme high, according to reports. Nearly 40 percent of full-time college students researched had tried marijuana at least once in the past year. This may be connected to the belief by close to 30 percent of all college students that marijuana is not harmful.

Prescription Pills

The National Institute of Health shared a report that concluded prescription use and abuse among college students is a major problem. Prescription pills have been found to be readily available on campuses and too often, students are mixing prescription pills with some other substances.

Students may be drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana and choose to take pills too. The dangers in this can be an overdose and possible death. Prescription pills can be anything from opiates like oxycodone to benzodiazapams like Xanax, to stimulants such as Ritalin.


The National Institute on Drug Abuse claims PCP, Salvia, Ecstasy, and LSD are among the top used hallucinogens. These drugs are severely mind-altering and can cause dissociative characteristics in which students detach from reality. All the body’s senses are affected by hallucinogens and this can lead to students seeing, smelling, feeling, tasting and touching things that are not real.

Synthetic THC

Often called synthetic marijuana, k2, Spice or fake weed, this drug is made in a lab and was originally intended to help cancer patients. While its use was much more widespread a few years ago, it is still being used by college students today.

It is nothing like true marijuana. Synthetic forms have been known to cause hallucinations, seizures, and overdoses. The dangers arise because it is easily accessed, and students have no idea how much to take for their size, weight, and tolerance. Hence, they overdose.

With other substances, like alcohol, you can learn your tolerance after just a few times of drinking. You know what affects you will experience after a specific number of drinks. This is not the case with synthetics.

Furthermore, the chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana are not consistent due to bans placed on them by the government. Therefore, each time a student uses it, they could be ingesting a new set of hazardous chemicals.

Solutions Available

The drugs discussed here are among the most commonly used by college students. In addition to these are cocaine, methamphetamine, inhalants, and stimulants. They are all dangerous in their own way.

College students need ways to prevent them from using substances. They also need help if they are having trouble when trying to stop use, from intervention to recovery.

Some colleges are working with agencies who provide services such as these. This means students can receive the help they need without having to leave school. They can receive any level of treatment necessary, on campus, to help them continue their education without interruption.

Having a substance abuse issue should not require a student slowing down their goals of graduation.

Photo by Maria Teneva