Updated on February 6, 2024
10 min read

College Drug Abuse vs. Addiction

For college undergraduates, navigating through young adulthood and exploring newfound freedoms might be exciting. Unfortunately, for many students, these freedoms can extend to experimenting with unhealthy behaviors. 

Some believe casual drug and alcohol use in college isn’t a problem if you manage it responsibly. However, not all forms of substance use are safe. Those who engage in recreational drug use may even develop addiction. 

This blog post explores the difference between casual drug abuse and addiction in college settings. It also discusses which drugs the youth today commonly abuse.

Why Are College Students Vulnerable to Substance Abuse? 

College students between 18 and 24 are at an increased risk of substance abuse for several reasons: 

  • Peer pressure and desire to fit in with the crowd
  • Curiosity about experimentation and new experiences
  • Stress from academic, social, and personal pressures
  • Accessibility of drugs on college campuses
  • Lack of parental supervision or control

Many students also develop open attitudes toward alcohol and drug use while partying or studying. This normalization of substance use can lead to increased experimentation and eventual addiction. 

The Difference Between Substance Abuse and Addiction

Here's how to differentiate between substance abuse and addiction in college students.

What Defines Substance Abuse? 

Substance abuse is the use of drugs or alcohol that negatively affects your life. People also call it substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Substance abuse may mean using drugs and alcohol despite the academic, social, or personal consequences for college students. 

For example, you may regularly skip classes to party or use drugs instead of studying for exams. This behavior can lead to lower grades, conflicts with friends and family, or legal issues.

What Defines Addiction? 

Addiction is a chronic disease involving compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences. College students who develop addictions may experience intense cravings for drugs or alcohol.

They may also have difficulty controlling their substance use. Those with addiction continue using substances even if it negatively impacts their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Moreover, addiction is a DSM-5 diagnosis.

DSM-5 stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. It's the standard classification system that mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health conditions.

What Happens to Students’ Substance Use After College? 

While many students misuse drugs in college, they often stop after graduation. However, graduating college often brings new responsibilities and commitments that may require more than a significant academic course load.

This transition can cause stress, anxiety, depression, and other pressures that could trigger drug abuse or addiction. Unfortunately, the normalization of substance use in college can carry over into post-college life for some.

This dependence can lead to addiction. These people may continue to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with the stresses of adult life.

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What Are the Most Commonly Abused Substances in College?

What college students commonly abuse varies over time. However, some substances consistently remain in use for young adults on campus.


Alcohol is the most widely used substance among college students between 18 and 24. It's legal for those aged 21 and above in the United States.

Alcohol is often readily available at parties and events, making it easy to obtain and abuse. While casual drinking may seem harmless, binge drinking or heavy alcohol use can lead to dangerous consequences like overdoses, blackouts, accidents, and sexual assault.

Excessive drinking in college can also lead to an alcohol use disorder (AUD) later. AUD would require specialized treatment to overcome.

Prescription Study Drugs

Doctors prescribe prescription stimulants to treat conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

College students without prescriptions often abuse these drugs because they believe it'll help them focus and improve academic performance.

However, taking study drugs without a prescription can lead to dangerous side effects. These include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Potential for addiction

It can also result in an overdose or other health risks.

The common “study drugs” include:

  • Adderall
  • Concerta
  • Dexedrine
  • Ritalin
  • Vyvanse


Marijuana is one of the most commonly used illicit drugs among college students. While some states have legalized recreational or medical marijuana, it's still illegal at the federal level.

Nearly 12% of U.S. college students who consumed cannabis reported using it daily or almost daily within the past three months in fall 2022.7 

Unfortunately, using marijuana can lead to health and academic consequences for college students, including:

  • Respiratory problems from smoking
  • Poor academic performance from impaired cognitive function
  • Development of marijuana use disorder if used in the long-term
  • Legal issues if caught using or possessing marijuana on campus

Party Drugs

Party drugs refer to drugs people use at social gatherings like parties or music festivals for recreational purposes. These substances are often highly addictive and have a high potential for abuse among college students.

Common party drugs include:

  • Stimulants, such as amphetamines, ephedrine, Ritalin, Adderall, crystal meth, and cocaine
  • Ecstasy and Molly (MDMA)
  • Ketamine
  • LSD
  • GHB
  • 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

These substances can enhance mood, increase euphoria, and keep you up all night. However, they can also cause dangerous side effects, including overdose and addiction.

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What Are the Consequences & Risk Factors of Drug Abuse in College?

College students who spend most 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:

  • Using substances more often over time
  • High drug tolerance
  • Development of a substance use disorder (SUD)
  • Spending a lot of money on drugs
  • Drug cravings, which is a sign of addiction
  • Feeling guilty or shameful after using the drug
  • Skipping classes, which can result 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 in health and overall wellness

When to Seek Treatment

If you suspect your college student may be struggling with drug abuse or addiction, seek help immediately. Early intervention can prevent long-term consequences and improve the chances of recovery.

Some signs that a college student needs treatment for substance abuse or addiction include:

  • Frequent use of drugs or alcohol
  • Difficulty controlling substance use
  • Development of tolerance (requiring more drugs or alcohol to feel the same effects)
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop using
  • Neglecting responsibilities, such as attending classes or completing assignments
  • Changes in appearance or behavior

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Treatment Options for College Students Struggling with Addiction

Thankfully, various treatment options are available for college students struggling with addiction, including:

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment is a residential program where you live at a facility for the duration of your treatment. This type of treatment provides round-the-clock medical care and support, making it ideal for those who require intensive treatment or have a severe addiction.

Programs under this category can vary in length. Most typically range from 30 days to 6 months.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment programs don't require you to live at the facility. Instead, you attend therapy and other treatments during scheduled appointments while continuing your daily life.

This type of treatment is best for those with mild to moderate addiction. Outpatient treatment is also suitable as a step-down program after completing inpatient treatment.


Various therapies can also help treat addiction among college students, including:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): Helps you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): A type of CBT that focuses on regulating emotions and managing stress
  • Contingency management: Offers rewards or incentives for positive behaviors, such as staying sober
  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET): Helps increase motivation to change addictive behaviors
  • Motivational interviewing (MI): A goal-oriented, collaborative counseling style that helps you increase motivation for behavior change
  • Family therapy: Involves the family in the treatment process to address any underlying family issues that may have contributed to addiction

Individual Counseling

Individual counseling allows you to work one-on-one with a therapist to address your addiction. You also get to tackle other underlying issues that may contribute to it in individual counseling. 

This type of treatment is often combined with other forms of therapy. Individual counseling can also be an ongoing support after completing a treatment program.

Support Groups

Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), provide a supportive community for those in recovery. These groups often have meetings on college campuses, making them easily accessible to students.

Support groups can also benefit those who have completed treatment and want continued support and accountability.

12-Step Programs

12-step programs, such as AA and NA, provide a structured approach to recovery and offer support from others who have gone through similar struggles. These programs often incorporate spiritual principles and the belief in a higher power.

Prevention Measures and Campus Initiatives

Many colleges are taking proactive measures to prevent drug abuse and support students in recovery. Some initiatives include:

  • Awareness campaigns: Colleges often hold events and provide educational materials to raise awareness about the dangers of drug abuse.
  • Counseling services: Many colleges offer counseling sessions for students struggling with substance abuse or addiction.
  • Recovery groups: In-campus recovery groups, such as Students for Recovery, support students in recovery and promote a sober lifestyle.
  • Drug-free residence halls: Some colleges designate specific residence halls as drug-free environments to support those in recovery or those seeking a substance-free living environment.
  • Partnerships with local treatment centers: Colleges may partner with local addiction treatment centers to provide resources and referrals for students needing help.

Statistics on First-Time Use of Drugs and Alcohol in College

The 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) revealed that 49.3% of full-time college students aged 18 to 22 drank alcohol. This number consists of 46.1% of males and 52.2% of females.6

The survey also found that 27.4% of college students binge drank during the same period. That's roughly a quarter of students, with 25.0% males and 29.6% females.6

Here are the most common drugs college students typically abuse for the first time:

  • 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)

FAQs on College Substance Abuse

Is Casual Drinking a Problem?

Casual drinking can sometimes escalate into a problem when it becomes habitual and leads to negative consequences. Pay attention to your alcohol consumption and seek help if you can't control your drinking.

What If My Friends Pressure Me to Drink or Use Drugs?

Setting boundaries with peers who may pressure you to drink or use drugs is essential. If you're struggling to make healthy choices in social situations, seek support from a counselor or join a recovery group on campus.

How Can I Support a Friend in Recovery?

Be supportive and understanding of your friend's journey in recovery. Offer to attend meetings or therapy sessions with them and avoid engaging in activities that may trigger their addictive behaviors.

Are Certain Majors or Extracurricular Activities More Associated with Substance Abuse?

No direct correlation exists between a specific major or extracurricular activity and substance abuse. However, factors like high stress levels, peer pressure, and easy access to drugs or alcohol may contribute to substance abuse among college students.

Can I Still Have a Social Life in College without Drinking or Using Drugs?

Absolutely. You can still have a fulfilling social life in college without alcohol or drugs. Seek out sober events and activities on campus, surround yourself with supportive friends, and remember that you are not alone in your journey toward recovery and sobriety.


Addiction is a complex disease that can affect anyone, including college students. It can have severe consequences and risk factors, but seeking treatment can lead to successful recovery.

Various options are available to help college students struggling with addiction. So, seek help and support as early as possible to prevent long-term consequences.

Look out for any warning signs and take action if you suspect a college student is struggling with substance abuse. By offering help and support, you can help them regain control of their future.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
7 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Club Drugs: What You Should Know.” American Family Physician, 2018.
  2. Lipari, R.N., and Jean-Francois, B. “A Day in the Life of College Students Aged 18 to 22: Substance Use Facts.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2016.
  3. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “CDC – Frequently Asked Questions – Alcohol.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. 
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Prescription Stimulants DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018.
  5. Prescription Drug Misuse.” The University of Texas at Austin.
  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “College Drinking—Facts for Parents.” College Drinking Prevention, 2023.
  7. Statista Research Department. “Percentage of U.S. college students that had used cannabis within the past 3 months as of fall 2022, by frequency.” Statista, 2023.

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