Teenage Substance Abuse

Drugs and alcohol have a greater effect on teens than on adults. The signs of addiction can be difficult to understand, and many teens don’t realize the long-term damage drugs have on their bodies because the short-term side effects fade. Help is available for teens who have questions about drug abuse or think they are suffering from addiction.

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No one tries a drug with the hopes of becoming addicted. Teens may try alcohol because they saw their parents drinking, or they may try marijuana because their friends offered it to them. Some people can have one drink or one hit and stop. It’s not as easy for others.

Teens have chemically naive brains that have not been exposed to drugs or alcohol. The neurochemical effects that they get are much more intense than folks older than 25.

Dr. Kevin Wandler, Chief Medical Officer, Advanced Recovery Systems

It can be difficult to admit that you’re addicted to alcohol or other drugs. In 2014, an estimated 2.7 percent of American adolescents ages 12 to 17 suffered from alcohol dependence or abuse, and 3.5 percent suffered from drug dependence or abuse. Only 10 percent of adolescents in this age range suffering from illicit drug addiction sought treatment.

Alcohol and other drugs can cause long-lasting damage to the brain and other parts of the body. It’s difficult to understand because the obvious side effects can disappear after a few hours or a night of sleep. But the long-term effects of teen drug use occur slowly and grow with repeated use.

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The Facts About Alcohol and Drugs

Depressed teen looking out a window

894,000 Needed Treatment in 2014

About 894,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 needed treatment for an illicit drug problem in 2014.

It can be hard to find accurate, non-biased information about alcohol and drug use. The truth is thousands of teens try alcohol and don’t get in car crashes. Thousands of teens across the country smoke weed for the first time and never go on to try harder drugs, such as cocaine or heroin.

But that doesn’t mean the substances are safe. Drivers between the ages of 16 and 20 years old with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher are 17 times more likely to die in a car crash than sober teenage drivers. About 894,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 needed treatment for an illicit drug problem in 2014. Learn the facts about alcohol and drug use before deciding whether the risk is worth the reward.


Courtney Sexton, former host of the substance abuse prevention program Real Talk, shares a staggering statistic regarding teens, marijuana use and car crashes.

Few Teens Smoke Marijuana or Use Drugs Regularly

Many teens think everyone is using or trying drugs. The fact is youth may brag about things they haven’t tried or don’t do. By 12th grade, 44 percent of teens have tried marijuana once in their life, but only 21 percent used it in the past 30 days, meaning the vast majority of teens don’t smoke weed often.

By their senior year, 21 percent had tried an illicit drug other than marijuana, and just 7.6 percent used illicit drugs other than marijuana in the past 30 days. That means almost 80 percent of teens avoided hard drugs throughout high school, and more than 90 percent abstain from hard drug use on a regular basis.

Depressed teenager sitting lonely outdoors

Research Isn’t Clear on Gateway Drugs

Many anti-drug programs tell teens that gateway drugs, such as marijuana, lead to harder drugs. It’s true that marijuana, tobacco and alcohol use often precede harder drug use, but the majority of people who try weed do not go on to use harder drugs.

However, the drugs may have some gateway effect. Studies have proven that people who have tried alcohol, marijuana or tobacco are more significantly affected by harder drugs. Such gateway drugs can also exacerbate the symptoms of other mental health conditions, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Thus, trying gateway drugs during youth can lead vulnerable teens down the path to addiction.

Prescription Drugs Are Not Safer Than Illicit Drugs

There is a common misconception that drugs prescribed by doctors are safer than drugs on the street, or drugs in pill form are safer than powder or liquid. That isn’t true. For more than a decade, painkiller pills killed more people than any street drug. During a seven-year span, almost 1 million people went to the emergency department after overdosing on anxiety pills, such as Xanax or Valium.

You shouldn’t give anxiety pills to a friend who is stressed or ADHD meds to a friend who needs to focus before a test. Doctors consider your entire health history before prescribing drugs. Your friend may not react to the drugs the same way as you, and the consequences could be dangerous. Likewise, you shouldn’t pressure a friend into giving you a prescription drug. Go to a doctor for medical help if you’re stressed, have trouble focusing or are in pain.

Caffeine Doesn’t Keep You Sober

The only way to sober up is to wait, and the only way to avoid getting too drunk is to slow your consumption of alcohol. Caffeinated alcoholic beverages may make you feel like you aren’t getting drunk as fast, but they actually contain more alcohol than a can of beer. The caffeine only masks the signs of intoxication.

Alcoholic energy drinks are sold in bright cans and contain sugars and flavors to appeal to young people. But research shows that teens who consume alcohol mixed with energy drinks are four times as likely to be alcoholics.

Compared with college students who drink alcohol without caffeine, those who drink alcoholic energy drinks are:

  • Twice as likely to be hurt or injured
  • Twice as likely to require medical attention
  • Twice as likely to drive with someone who is intoxicated
  • Nearly twice as likely to be taken advantage of sexually
  • More than twice as likely to take advantage of someone sexually

College students often mix energy drinks and alcohol to drink more alcohol over longer periods of time.

Legalizing Marijuana Doesn’t Make it Safe

Some states have legalized recreational marijuana for adults, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Other legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco are also dangerous. Alcohol contributes to nearly 88,000 deaths each year, and cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year.

Each marijuana strain is different. Limited research has linked some medical strains to health benefits, but regular marijuana use is linked to poor grades, bronchitis, lung infections, anxiety problems and depression. Single use of drugs that have been legalized probably won’t result in long-term negative consequences, but repeated use can lead to several harmful consequences.

Alternative Drugs May Not Be Safer

Synthetic marijuana is nothing like marijuana. Spice and K2, common examples of synthetic marijuana, are more similar to stimulants than they are to cannabis. They don’t include THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes euphoria. They contain dangerous ingredients such as bleach, fertilizer and rat poison. Unlike weed, synthetic marijuana can lead to deadly overdoses.

The verdict isn’t out on e-cigarettes. Some experts believe they’re safer than tobacco products, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. In lab tests, the chemicals in e-cigarettes killed human cells and DNA. Supporters of e-cigs claim they can help people stop smoking traditional cigarettes, but multiple studies have found that teens who smoke e-cigs are more likely to start smoking tobacco cigarettes than those who don’t try e-cigs.

Some People Get Hooked Fast, Others Don’t

Many teens have heard that it takes only one time to get addicted. While the majority of people who try alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs once don’t become addicted, one time is all it takes for some people. Some people’s brains are more vulnerable to addiction than others.

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You should be concerned if you try a beer, a cigarette or weed once and it’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever felt. The part of your brain that reacts to pleasure may be more drastically affected by alcohol and other drugs, which puts you at a very high risk for developing an addiction if you continue to use these substances. Other people may be able to drink or use drugs occasionally without becoming addicted, but they’re still susceptible to a large number of health effects.

The Fact that Other People Do It Doesn’t Mean It’s Safe

Children and teens tend to try things that their parents or friends have tried. Why not? If your role models do it, it makes sense to think that it’s not a big deal. But people respond to alcohol and drugs differently. The human brain doesn’t stop developing until around age 25. That means teens are more vulnerable than their parents to the side effects of alcohol and other drugs.

If your friends tried alcohol or other drugs and made it sound like a great time, they probably didn’t tell you about the crash they felt after the buzz wore off or the hangover they experienced after getting drunk. They may not have felt the worst consequences of using the first time, or they may have avoided telling you about it. But the more often you drink or use drugs, the more often you’re at risk for becoming addicted or experiencing the dangerous consequences of drinking or using drugs.

The number of children age 12-17 who need treatment for a substance abuse problems is 2 Million.

What Happens When Teens Use Drugs?

The immediate sensations associated with drinking or using drugs include relief, silliness, euphoria and happiness. Those side effects are short-lived, though. The happy feelings are often followed by headaches, drowsiness, nausea, dehydration, exhaustion and fever.

The most severe consequence associated with abusing drugs is death — whether it’s by overdose, traffic accidents, crime-related activity or other causes. Youth who abuse drugs tend to suffer from a variety of other long-term consequences.

Long-term consequences of drug use include:

  • Their grades drop.
  • They have health problems.
  • Their relationships with peers suffer.
  • Their relationships with family suffer.
  • They get into trouble with law enforcement.

Problems in school are almost always noticeable when teens abuse drugs. They’re absent or tardy more often. They struggle to learn as quickly as their peers, and they get into trouble for misbehavior. They also tend to struggle to socialize with peers who don’t use drugs.

Teens who abuse drugs get into accidents at a high rate. They suffer death from suicide, accident and illness much more often than teens who avoid drugs. Teens who share needles and other drug paraphernalia can contract diseases, such as HIV. Many drugs damage the body’s immune system, too, making it more difficult to recover from minor illnesses.

What Happens If You Get Caught?

Getting caught with alcohol or other drugs can be damaging for youth. The consequences depend on the circumstances, how you get caught and who catches you.

Schools are allowed to randomly drug test middle and high school students participating in extracurricular activities. Many schools also perform random locker searches or bring drug dogs on school property.

family burying their loved one

Underage Drinking Deaths

Underage drinking is a factor in 4,358 deaths involving people younger than 21 each year.

If you test positive for drugs or are caught possessing them on school grounds, you can be suspended from school, kicked off extracurricular teams and forced to transfer. Your grades will drop if you miss assignments or tests while suspended, and teachers or school counselors may refuse to sign a letter of recommendation for college. Depending on the severity of the offense, the school may call the police.

If police catch you with alcohol or other drugs, you can be charged with juvenile possession. Keep in mind you can also be charged with possession if you have prescription drugs that aren’t prescribed to you. The most common penalties for juvenile possession include drug counseling, probation and community service. Repeat offenders may be diverted to drug addiction treatment centers or sentenced to home confinement.

The penalties for drug trafficking are much more serious. Possessing a large amount of drugs, drugs for the purpose of dealing or drugs in association with a violent crime can lead to large fines and time in prison.

How Do Drugs Affect the Brain?

Drugs have a more drastic effect on children and teens than on adults because a person’s brain is still growing and developing until around age 25. The brain develops unevenly, though. The parts of the brain in charge of coordination, emotion and motivation develop much more quickly than the parts that control reasoning and impulse.

That is why teens seem to respond emotionally much more often than adults. It’s also why they’re more prone to risk-taking behavior. A developing brain is also more easily damaged than a fully matured brain.

“Teens have chemically naive brains that have not been exposed to drugs or alcohol. The neurochemical effects that they get are much more intense than folks older than 25,” Dr. Kevin Wandler, chief medical officer of Advanced Recovery Systems, told DrugRehab.com.

Alcohol and other drugs disrupt brain development. They negatively affect memory and a person’s ability to respond to stimuli and stressful situations. That’s why people who abuse drugs at a young age often suffer mental health problems — including depression, personality disorders or suicidal thoughts — later in life.

Developing brains are also more prone to addiction. Teenage brains adapt more quickly to substances of abuse, leading to cravings and dependence. Addiction most commonly begins during the teenage years and continues into adulthood. A 2011 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 90 percent of Americans with substance use disorders began using alcohol or other drugs before age 18.

There are more than 500 juvenile drug courts in the United States that help teen offenders receive addiction treatment.

How Many Teens Use Drugs?

The vast majority of middle schoolers have never tried alcohol, marijuana or illicit drugs. As expected, teens in high school are more likely to try the substances as they get older. But fewer teens today are trying alcohol and other drugs, with the exception of marijuana, than in previous years.

Past-month drug use trends are a better indicator of how many teens use substances of abuse regularly because lifetime rates are more likely to include teens who have tried a substance only once or twice. Past-month use is also a better indicator for addiction risk.

The Percent of Students Who Tried an Illicit Drug Including Marijuana Once in Their Lifetime

Graph of The Percent of Students Who Tried an Illicit Drug Including Marijuana Once in Their Lifetime

Percent of High School Seniors Who Consumed Marijuana in the Past 30 Days

Graph of Percent of High School Seniors Who Consumed Marijuana in the Past 30 Days

Percent of High School Seniors Who Smoked Cigarettes in the Past 30 Days

Graph of Percent of High School Seniors Who Smoked Cigarettes in the Past 30 Days

Percent of High School Seniors Who Had Been Drunk in the Past 30 Days

Graph of Percent of High School Seniors Who Had Been Drunk in the Past 30 Days

Percent of High School Seniors Who Drank Alcoholic Beverages Containing Caffeine in the Past Year

Graph of Percent of High School Seniors Who Drank Alcoholic Beverages Containing Caffeine in the Past Year

Percent of High School Seniors Who Used Various Drugs in the Past 30 Days, 2015

Graph of Percent of High School Seniors Who Used Various Drugs in the Past 30 Days, 2015

Alcohol is by far the most common substance of abuse, but not all teens get drunk when they drink, according to the 2015 Monitoring the Future survey. While 35.3 percent of 12th-grade students reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, only 20.6 said they got drunk in that time frame.

The number of high school seniors who drink alcoholic beverages containing caffeine has been declining during the past five years. The vast majority also avoid cigarettes and marijuana, and hard drug use is extremely uncommon.

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Why Do Teens Use Drugs?

Teens abuse drugs for different reasons. Most teens say they take drugs to get high, but others use drugs to escape stress from school or family, out of curiosity, to fit in with others or because they don’t think drugs are risky.

Reasons Teens Use Marijuana:

  • To have fun: 50 percent
  • To relax: 48 percent
  • Being high feels good: 45 percent
  • To forget about troubles: 37 percent
  • To experiment: 36 percent
  • To relieve boredom: 33 percent
  • To deal with pressures and stress from school: 30 percent
  • Friends are doing it: 29 percent
  • To deal with problems at home: 27 percent

Source: 2013 Partnership for Drug-Free Kids Attitude Tracking Study

A number of risk factors increase a teen’s likelihood of trying drugs. They include being raised in a home that condones drug use, being raised by parents who use drugs, the presence of drugs in their community, high levels of stress, exposure to trauma or a slew of genetic factors.

According to Wandler, “Younger teens are trying to look cool and adult like. They might see family or friends using drugs, and they want to be a part of that in-crowd and look mature.”

Teens most often experiment with drugs during times of transition, such as beginning middle school or high school. They face challenges in new social environments as they learn how to fit in and decide which social groups they want to associate with.

Peer pressure and the desire to fit in heavily influence a teen’s decision to use alcohol or other drugs. Research shows that teens consider the risks and rewards when making a decision, but they’re much more likely than adults to ignore the risks. So they’re more likely to think about looking cool or fitting in if they use drugs than they are to think about getting addicted or into an accident.

Student feeling the effects of peer pressure

Your friends might try some drugs because they think they’re harmless. Despite legalization by many states, smoking marijuana can cause several health consequences such as anxiety problems, depression and developing a marijuana addiction. Some teens believe e-cigs and electronic vaporizers are safer than tobacco cigarettes, but early studies have revealed e-cigs actually lead to future cigarette use.

Younger teens are trying to look cool and adult like. They might see family or friends using drugs, and they want to be a part of that in-crowd and look mature.


Prevention Advice for Teens

You don’t have to use alcohol or other drugs to be cool or to fit in. At times, it can seem like everyone is doing it or everyone has tried it. However, surveys and studies show that isn’t true. You don’t have to suffer the consequences of trying drugs or alcohol.

Saying No to Friends

Friends are important. We trust our friends, and we seek their approval. However, you shouldn’t let someone else make decisions for you. If a friend offers you alcohol or drugs, you can say no. Don’t be afraid of a negative reaction. If they continue to pressure you, you can walk away. Friends who attempt to persuade you do dangerous things aren’t looking out for your best interest.

Ways to Say No:

  • Change the topic.
  • Switch locations.
  • Suggest alternative things to do.
  • Pretend you’re getting a call or text.
  • Pretend you have to be home soon.
  • “Not now.”
  • “Maybe another time.”
  • “I don’t want to.”
  • “I don’t feel like it.”
  • “I can’t.”

You should hang out with friends who choose not to use alcohol and other drugs. You can lead by example by saying no to drugs. When you’re surrounded by friends who avoid drugs, saying no becomes easier.

Keeping strong relations with your parents or other adult role models is important, too. If you’re in an uncomfortable situation, it’s helpful to know you can call an adult for help.

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Learn About the Effects of Drugs and Alcohol

People who understand the dangers of alcohol and other drugs avoid them because they don’t want to suffer the consequences they know will occur. Don’t rely on a friend’s experience. They haven’t researched drugs, and they haven’t used drugs enough to suffer the long-term consequences.

Learn about drugs from the experts. Ask your parents, teachers, law enforcement or other adults about the real dangers of drugs. Seek school or community-based prevention organizations for reliable information.

Find Other Ways to Enjoy Life

You don’t need to rely on substances to enjoy life. There are so many other ways to have fun, including activity involving sports, music, arts or whatever interests you. If you have too much time on your hands, a part-time job is a great way to make money to buy things you want or to save up for a car or college.

Teens having fun at the lake

Sometimes avoiding risky situations involves planning. Don’t put yourself in a stressful situation where alcohol or other drugs will be present. Plan ways to have fun, clubs to join or time for work before the school year or summer break begins. You can participate in community-based prevention programs or lead a student group at your school.

Even if you plan ahead and find ways to have fun without drugs, you might still find yourself in a tricky situation. Don’t feel like you’re alone. Help is available if you’re afraid you’ll be pressured to try drugs or if you’ve already tried drugs and you need help stopping.

All the time, high school students tell us that the main reason their peers don’t drink or use drugs is because parents would disapprove.


How to Stop Using Alcohol or Other Drugs

Once you’ve developed an addiction, it can be incredibly difficult to stop drinking or using drugs. The easiest way to tell if you’re addicted is to try to stop drinking or using for one month. If you can abstain without any help, you probably don’t have a substance use disorder.

It can be hard to understand why your friend uses drugs despite getting in trouble, continues to drink until he or she throws up every weekend or keeps smoking cigarettes despite craving them more and more over time. Odds are they are addicted and are unable to stop without help.

Ways to tell if you or a friend has a substance use disorder include:

  • Inability to stop or control your drinking once you’ve started
  • Using alcohol or other drugs despite getting caught or in trouble
  • Repeatedly feeling hungover or sick after drinking or using
  • Craving alcohol or other drugs throughout the day or on weekends
  • Giving up old hobbies, sports or activities to drink or use drugs
  • Feeling tired, unhappy, angry or uninterested in life

If you think you may have a substance use disorder or your friend may be addicted to alcohol or other drugs, it’s important to seek help. It can be scary to tell a parent or a teacher that you or a friend tried drugs and became hooked. But people don’t recover from addiction without help. Adults will make sure you get the treatment you need.

Ways to tell your parents you or a friend need help:

  • Be open and honest.
  • Apologize for keeping secrets.
  • Ask for help.
  • Tell doctors and therapists the entire truth.
  • Stay strong and positive.

If you can’t tell your parents, tell a doctor or therapist. Health professionals can’t legally tell your parents or police if you use alcohol or other drugs. They will talk to you about treatment options and support you in talking to your parents.

Rehab for Teens

Certain drug rehabilitation centers specialize in treating teens. They use evidence-based approaches that are much more effective for substance abuse in teens than for adults. A variety of behavioral and family-based therapies have helped teens recover from addiction.

Learn more about addiction treatment for teens


Recovery is a long process of learning to live without drugs. Many people continue therapy after a stay at a treatment center. Others rely more heavily on support from family and friends or support groups like Teen-Anon or Alateen during recovery from addiction.

Learn more about teen addiction recovery

Kim Borwick, M.A.
Kim Borwick, M.A., Editor, DrugRehab.com
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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