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Updated on October 1, 2021

College Drug Abuse vs Addiction

Drug Abuse and Addiction in College

In the U.S., the prevalence rates of substance abuse and addiction, also called substance use disorder (SUD), are high among college students between 18 and 24 years of age. This is mainly because young adults attending college have newfound personal freedoms. Many students also develop open attitudes toward alcohol and drug use, either while partying or studying, referred to as “study drugs.”

However, even though partying and abusing substances in college may seem normal, it can lead to serious (even fatal) consequences. While many students misuse drugs in college, they often stop doing so after they graduate. On the other hand, some people become addicted to substances after college and will require professional treatment to overcome it.

On a typical day in the past year, about 2,200 college students attending school full-time drank alcohol for the first time. Almost 1,400 students also took an illicit drug for the first time. Illicit drugs are addictive and illegal. Common types include:

  • Cocaine, including crack cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Ecstasy
  • Hallucinogens
  • Inhalants
  • Marijuana
  • Amphetamines and stimulants (when taken without a prescription)
  • Tranquilizers (when taken without a prescription)
  • Depressants and sedatives (when taken without a prescription)

The Difference Between Substance Abuse & Addiction

There is a big difference between “substance abuse” and “substance addiction,” also known as substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD). More specifically, people who abuse drugs are usually able to quit. They also do not experience ‘codependency.’ However, a SUD is diagnosed if an individual is mentally and physically dependent on a drug.

Further, Addiction is a DSM-5 diagnosed disorder. Abuse, on the other hand, is the term used for someone who takes medications that are not prescribed to them. If you have a prescription, but take more than what the prescription states to, it is also considered substance abuse. However, this cycle of abuse can lead to addiction. Many people can’t quit because there are dangerous withdrawal symptoms that occur after stopping the use of many prescription medications and drugs.

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Commonly Abused Substances in College

College drug use disorders are common. Many people develop them as they adjust to new environments, attend parties, and possibly join a fraternity or sorority. With this new independence, some students are more likely to participate in risky activities and drive under the influence. Doing so can lead to serious criminal and financial consequences.

College students abuse many different types of substances, including:

Alcohol

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among college students between 18 and 24. While alcohol is legal, consuming large amounts of the substance is dangerous. For example, binge drinking is when women consume four or more drinks, and when men consume five or more drinks in two hours. Binge drinking is common among college students, but this cycle of excessive alcohol intake can be costly and even deadly.

Excessive drinking in college can also lead to an alcohol use disorder (AUD) later on, which requires specialized treatment to overcome successfully. Those who binge drink are also more likely to experience alcohol poisoning or an overdose, which can both be fatal.

Prescription Study Drugs

Many college students misuse prescription “study drugs,” such as stimulants and amphetamines, to aid in studying. They often take these drugs illegally and without a prescription. This is extremely dangerous because if stimulants are taken too often or in too high of doses, an overdose can occur. Further, many students believe the drugs help improve their concentration and memory while studying. In reality, this is not the case.

Amphetamines are Schedule II prescription medications, which means they have the potential for abuse. Common “study drugs” include:

  • Adderall
  • Concerta
  • Dexedrine
  • Ritalin
  • Vyvanse

Marijuana

Many people use or smoke marijuana at parties or in other social settings. Since it is legal in many U.S. states, people believe it is socially acceptable to use in moderation. Similar to alcohol, marijuana users do not feel the need to quit because of its rising legality around the country.

Although, marijuana does have addictive properties. And in some cases, a marijuana use disorder can develop if the drug is used long-term. In particular, chronic marijuana users are those who cannot get through the day without using the drug.

On a typical day in the past year, over 700,000 college students in the U.S. used marijuana (out of 9 million total college students). Marijuana is considered an illicit drug because it is not legal for recreational or medicinal use in all 50 U.S. states.

“Party Drugs”

Party drugs include illicit substances that college students take at parties. Many of these drugs are used to enhance moods, increase euphoria, and keep people up all night. Often, people mix these drugs with alcohol, which can be an extremely dangerous and even deadly combination. Party drugs college students use, include, but are not limited to:

  • Stimulants, such as amphetamines, ephedrine, Ritalin, Adderall, crystal meth, and cocaine
  • Ecstasy and Molly (MDMA)
  • Ketamine
  • LSD
  • GHB
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Inhalants, such as nitrous oxide, “poppers,” and hydrocarbons
  • Certain opioid pain relievers, such as oxycodone, codeine, hydrocodone, or "Roxies"
  • Sedatives and benzodiazepines, such as Xanax

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Consequences & Risk Factors of Drug Abuse in College

College students who spend the majority of their time abusing or misusing substances are less likely to succeed academically. They also have a higher risk of developing health complications as they get older. In addition to lower academic performance, other risk factors associated with drug abuse include:

  • High drug tolerance
  • The development of a substance use disorder (SUD)
  • Spending a lot of money on drugs
  • Drug cravings, which is a sign of addiction
  • Using substances more often over time
  • Feeling guilty or shameful after using the drug
  • Skipping classes, resulting in poor grades
  • Becoming aggressive or hostile towards others
  • Participating in risky behaviors
  • Drunk driving, which can lead to a DUI or death
  • Financial strain
  • Fighting with family or friends
  • A steady decline of health and overall wellness

When To Seek Treatment

To prevent substance abuse and addiction in college, parents must speak with their children about the consequences and dangers of drug use. If you assume your child is abusing substances, such as alcohol, party drugs, or stimulants, you should seek treatment immediately.

If you are currently a college student, the sooner you get treatment, the less likely you will develop drug dependency after college.

Common treatment options for substance abuse and SUDs include:

  • Inpatient or outpatient treatment
  • Therapies, such as individual therapy, family therapy, and group therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), including dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • 12-step programs

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Resources

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American Family Physician. “Club Drugs: What You Should Know. American Family Physician, vol. 98, 2 (2018). https://www.aafp.org/afp/2018/0715/p85-s1.html

A Day in the Life of College Students Aged 18 to 22: Substance Use Facts, www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_2361/ShortReport-2361.html

“CDC – Frequently Asked Questions – Alcohol.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 Mar. 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm#moderateDrinking

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Prescription Stimulants.” NIDA, 6 June 2018, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-stimulants

“Prescription Drug Misuse.” Study Drugs, healthyhorns.utexas.edu/studydrugs.html

Related Pages

Addiction Resources for American Communities

College Drug Use Statistics

Addiction Resources for American Communities

Preventing Substance Abuse in College

Addiction Resources for American Communities

Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders in College

Addiction Resources for American Communities

Dangers of "Study Drug" Abuse in College

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