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Drug Use in High School

Teenagers might enter high school as children, but they graduate as young adults. This four-year period is transformational — full of growth, hardships, and self-discovery. It’s also an experimental time, and for millions of teens, that means trying drugs and alcohol. 

The availability of drugs at school is surprisingly high, especially in high school. Sadly, some teens using drugs will suffer serious consequences as a result of their substance use.

Why Do Teens Use Drugs?

There are many different possible causes of teen drug use. Many are reacting to peer pressure and believe that turning to drugs and alcohol is how to become popular in high school. Some use drugs to self-medicate from painful feelings. 

Some teens even turn to “study aid” drugs like Adderall or Ritalin, because they believe these substances will boost their academic performance. High school is often the first time that kids encounter illicit substances, and their curiosity often gets the better of them.

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure is influence by the people in one’s social group or setting. Not all peer pressure is bad, though. This influence can cause people to act more responsibly or join a sports team, for example. However, usually, when peer pressure is discussed, it is negative and often is tied to bullying.

Teens face an overwhelming amount of peer pressure in high school, from their classmates and friends. Peer pressure during adolescence often involves risky behaviors, such as trying drugs or alcohol. Teenagers may feel as though they need to give in to this pressure to fit in socially.

Academic Pressure

High school is an exceptionally busy and stressful period of life, and academic pressure in high school is very high. Students face harder classes and are gearing up to go to college or start a career. The pressure to get good grades, do well on entrance exams and succeed in extracurricular activities comes from both parents and teachers. 

Overwhelmed by homework and studying, teens sometimes turn to performance-enhancing drugs to boost their energy and concentration. They might also take drugs to help them sleep better under stress. Taken without a prescription, these drugs can become addictive and can cause dangerous health effects.

High School Drug Use Statistics

Though not all teens abuse drugs or alcohol, most teenagers know somebody who does. Drug prevalence and availability is high as well. The latest statistics show that nearly 20% of high school students have been offered, sold, or given drugs, on school property, in the past year. 

Fortunately, the fact is that drug use among teenagers is declining: a recent study found that 4.3% of high schoolers had used drugs in the month before being surveyed, which is lower than in previous years. 


In the United States, high school students abuse alcohol more than any illicit drug. Not surprisingly, it causes the most harm, and underage alcohol use is responsible for 119,000 emergency department visits and 4,300 deaths each year among people under the age of 21.

Statistics from surveys conducted the past two years show:

  • 58.5% of 12th graders had tried alcohol

  • 30% of high schoolers drank in the last month

  • 13% binge drank (consuming four or more alcoholic beverages in a row)

  • 16% rode in the car of someone who had been drinking

  • 6% drove after drinking


In terms of illicit drugs, teenagers abuse marijuana the most. With the legalization of marijuana and cannabis products in many states, marijuana is now easily accessible to many high school students. At the same time, teenage perception of the dangers associated with marijuana use or the risk of marijuana addiction has decreased. Marijuana use in teens has remained steady in recent years, though many teens are now vaping marijuana in addition to smoking it.

Current and even past marijuana use is linked to significantly lower academic performance. The statistics on teenage marijuana use show that middle and high school marijuana use is common:

  • 16% of 12th graders have used marijuana in the past month

  • 1% of 6th graders have used marijuana in the past month

  • 10% of high schoolers earning As as grades currently use marijuana, as opposed to 48% of those earning Ds or Fs

Prescription Drugs

Fortunately, the opioid epidemic seems to have avoided high schools. Unlike adults in the country, non-medical use of prescription drugs, especially opiate painkillers, has decreased among teenagers in recent years. About 11% of high school seniors report misusing prescription medications in the past year. However, the number is only 4% when it comes to the misuse of painkillers specifically.

Academic pressure and lack of sleep can cause teens to turn to drugs to boost their performance in school. Stimulants, like the amphetamine drugs Adderall and methylphenidate (Ritalin) are often chosen by students trying to cram for an exam or staying up late finishing homework. While these are often prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), they can cause harmful health effects if not used properly. They can also become addictive.

Non-medical amphetamine use by teenagers is on the rise:

  • 6.9% of high school seniors report misusing Adderall

  • 7.9-9.8% of students misuse any type of amphetamine

  • Emergency department visits for ADHD medication use tripled between 2005 and 2010

Other Drugs Used by High Schoolers

Nearly a quarter of American high schoolers use at least one type of illicit drug. Many use more than one, or combine them with alcohol or tobacco. Common drugs used by teenagers (besides marijuana) include:

  • Amphetamines

  • Cough medicine

  • Hallucinogens

  • Ecstasy (MDMA)

  • LSD

  • Cocaine

  • Inhalants

  • Salvia

Effects of Drug Use in High School

Using drugs, alcohol, or tobacco in high school can cause severe long-term effects. Trying any of these before the age of 21 significantly raises the risk of developing an addiction or drug dependence. 

Consequences of addiction to any substance include: 

  • Brain abnormalities

  • Slowed thinking

  • Impaired learning and memory issues 

Drug abuse can also deplete the brain of certain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, sending high schoolers into a prolonged depression and leaving them susceptible to more destructive behaviors. Furthermore, teen substance abuse of any kind can have a major negative impact on their academic performance.

Does Your Teenager Need Addiction Treatment?

If you notice any signs of addiction in your teen, now is the time to reach out to a professional. There is help for teenagers who are misusing drugs or alcohol, but the longer the substance abuse continues, the harder it will be for your child to recover over the long-term.

Your family doctor or your child’s pediatrician can help you determine the best course of action, and whether you should begin looking into substance abuse treatment options. Depending on the severity of the addiction, they might encourage inpatient or outpatient drug rehab. At that point, you’ll need to look into insurance for rehab and any possible out-of-pocket costs of drug rehab treatment.

Article courtesy of The Recovery Village.


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