Drug Use in High School

While substance use among teens is lower now that it has been in decades, many high schoolers experiment with drinking and illicit drug use. Early experimentation with drugs and alcohol can permanently damage teenagers’ brains. Teens who use drugs and alcohol are also more likely struggle with addiction later in life.
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Your teenager’s high school years are a time of rapid maturation as they transition toward adulthood. Intellectually, they can engage in a wide range of topics and hold their own in conversations with adults. Physically, they may be indistinguishable from grown-ups — and with added responsibilities such as driving and working, they’re functioning more like adults too.

But for all their outward growth, certain parts of the teenage brain still lag behind. Brain circuits that govern impulse control and judgment are still maturing, and so-called reward centers are in high gear. Add in a dose of surging hormones and a strong desire to fit in with their peers, and you’ve got a formula for risk-taking that makes teens especially prone to experimentation with drugs and alcohol.

By the time they are seniors, in fact, more than 60 percent of high school students will have tried alcohol, and nearly half will have taken an illegal drug.

While daily use of drugs and alcohol among teens is much lower, dabbling with drug use can have long-term consequences.

Because the teenage brain is still developing, it’s more prone to damage from drinking and drug use. At the same time, those who abuse drugs and alcohol at a younger age are also more likely to develop an addiction later in life.

According to the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah, teens who drink by the age of 13 have a 43 percent chance of becoming an alcoholic. Those who begin drinking at age 21 have a 10 percent chance.

Risk Factors and Influences

High schoolers may decide to experiment with drugs and alcohol for many reasons. Some simply enjoy the physical sensation of getting high because it activates the pleasure centers in their brain. Others use drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms to deal with stress, depression, social anxiety or emotional problems.

Academic pressure can also contribute to teen drug use. In one study, stressed out teens with lower grades were seven times likelier to use marijuana and three times more likely to drink and use tobacco.

Greater access to drugs and alcohol increases the likelihood of use. High school seniors in states that allow medical or recreational marijuana, for instance, are more likely to have vaped marijuana or consumed edibles than their counterparts in other states.

Risk factors that can increase the likelihood of addiction include:

Drug-infested high schools are also contributing to the problem. According to a survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, nearly half of American high school students are aware of a student who sells drugs at their school. In addition, 52 percent teens surveyed said there are places in or near their school where teens can drink, smoke or use drugs during the school day.

Fortunately, the majority of young people who experiment with substances won’t develop an addiction, but some will. One out of every 10 of individuals who experiment with drugs and alcohol become addicted, according to the Genetic Science Learning Center. However, it’s impossible to predict which teens will get hooked and which won’t.

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While the overall rate of teen drug use has been declining in recent years, most high school students will have experimented with drugs and alcohol by the time they graduate.

Daily use of drugs or alcohol among teens is much lower, however. The 2017 Monitoring the Future survey found that only 6 percent of high school seniors in the U.S. smoke marijuana every day, and less than 2 percent of 12th-graders drink daily.

While alcohol and marijuana lead the list of most commonly abused substances, teens are also experimenting with addictive prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications.

Past Year Use of Prescription and Over-the-Counter Drugs among 12th-Graders
Adderall 5.5%
Tranquilizers 4.7%
Prescription opioids 4.2%
Cough or cold medicine 3.2%
Sedatives 2.9%
Ritalin 1.3%

Source: 2017 Monitoring the Future survey

Adderall, a stimulant used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is the No. 1 prescription drug abused by 12th-graders in this country, followed by tranquilizers, prescriptions opioids, cough and cold medicines and sedatives. Use of illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, steroids, synthetic marijuana and meth is very low among high school students.

Past Year Use of Illicit Drugs among 12th-Graders
Marijuana or hashish 37.1%
Synthetic marijuana 3.7%
LSD 3.3%
Cocaine 2.7%
MDMA, ecstasy or molly 2.6%
Inhalants 1.5%
Heroin 0.4%

Source: 2017 Monitoring the Future survey

While cigarette use among teens continues to plummet, vaping is on the rise. More than 1 in 4 high school seniors reported vaping during the past year, and nearly 10 percent said they’d vaped marijuana some time in the past 12 months.


While teen use of alcohol has largely been trending down since the 1980s, it’s still the most abused substance among teenagers.

Nearly 20 percent of 10th-graders and one-third of 12th-graders admit to having consumed alcohol within the past month, according to 2017 data from Monitoring the Future. Ten percent of sophomores and 17 percent of seniors surveyed said they’ve engaged in binge drinking, which is defined as having five or more drinks in a row at least once during the previous two weeks.

More than 60% of high school students will have tried alcohol by the time they are seniors.

Although many view teen drinking as a cultural rite of passage, underage drinking is illegal and can have serious consequences. More than 4,300 youths die each year as a result of excessive drinking at an economic cost of about $24 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Underage drinkers are more likely to suffer from social, educational, legal and physical problems. They also face a higher risk for suicide, homicide and physical violence.

Research, meanwhile, is shedding more light on how drinking impacts the teenage brain. Not only are teens more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, they’re also more likely to end up with long-term brain damage from drinking.

Scientists who’ve studied the brains of adolescent rats that have been exposed to alcohol have identified significant damage to the hippocampus, a structure critical for learning and memory, and the frontal areas of the brain, which govern impulse control and decision-making.


While 45 percent of high school seniors say they’ve used marijuana at least once in their lives, only 6 percent use the drug daily. That said, daily marijuana smoking is more common than daily cigarette smoking, and most teens seem unaware of the dangers associated with the drug.

Nearly 70 percent of high school seniors don’t believe that regular marijuana smoking is harmful, even though marijuana, like alcohol, has serious adverse impacts on brain development in teens.

The kind of damage that occurs, however, appears to depend on timing. Those who start using marijuana at the age of 16 or younger can end up having arrested development in the portions of the brain that govern judgment, reasoning and complex thinking. Marijuana use after the age of 16, meanwhile, appears to accelerate the aging of the brain.

Smoking marijuana can lead to mental illness. Heavy marijuana use among teens has been linked to a sixfold increase in developing schizophrenia. Early marijuana use also impairs emotional development and increases a young person’s likelihood of developing depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.


While less than 5 percent of high school seniors have ever taken an opioid and misuse of common prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin are at historic lows, heroin and other opioids were implicated in nearly two-thirds of teen overdose deaths in 2015.

According to Dr. Sharon Levy, director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program and associated professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, drug use patterns among American teens have changed drastically since 1975. Fewer teens are actually using drugs today, but those who do encounter a “different and more complex landscape.”

An especially troubling aspect of the opioid epidemic is the increasing presence of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil, which are hundreds to thousands of times stronger than morphine. The substances are often added to heroin, cocaine and other street drugs, and dealers or drug users may have no idea the deadly ingredients are present. They can kill unsuspecting people almost instantly.

Getting Help

Fortunately, there are steps you can take today to prevent your teen from becoming a statistic. First, learn the potential warning signs that your son or daughter is using drugs or alcohol.

Red flags that can signal a drug or alcohol problem include:
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Asking for money
  • Poor communication
  • Changes in appearance and attitude
  • Red or flushed cheeks
  • Moodiness
  • Short temper
  • Frequent use of gum or mints

If you suspect your teenager might have a drug or alcohol problem, start by addressing the issue in a supportive way. You may need to enlist the professional help of addiction specialists. They’ll be able to explain the extent of your teen’s problem and determine whether or not treatment is needed.

Be sure to keep an eye on prescription drugs and alcohol that you keep in your home. Even if you don’t think your teen is using drugs, it’s important to stay engaged in his or her life and initiate conversations about the risks of drinking and taking drugs.

Setting limits is also important so teens realize what’s expected of them. Follow through with discipline if your teenager breaks the rules.

Also, set a good example for your teenager. Your behavior has a profound influence on the choices your son or daughter makes. If you drink heavily or abuse painkillers, they’re likely do it themselves.

If your child is a thrill-seeker, look for healthy alternatives to substance abuse — such as dance, football or martial arts — that might deliver a natural high. That’s how Iceland’s government drastically reduced teen substance abuse, which was a massive problem in the country two decades ago.

Medical Disclaimer: DrugRehab.com aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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