two college students sitting on a campus lawn drinking coffee and using their laptops to research drug abuse among their peers

Drug Abuse Among College Campuses & Students

Substance abuse is the most prevalent among college students and campuses.  With increased stress and the pressure to fit in, college students are more likely to succumb to trying drugs and drinking alcohol.  College drug abuse is a serious issue on many campuses.  Continue reading to learn more and find out how you or a loved one can get treatment. 

Table of Contents

Going off to college is an important milestone in our life journey. Students can find new social circles, explore interests, and experience unlimited freedom.

But there are some negative experiences that college students must deal with as well. A heavier workload, social and academic pressure, and finding balance can be exhausting. Without any other options, students may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

College and addiction often go hand in hand. Almost 60% of college students use illicit drugs, tobacco, or alcohol. But substance abuse can have detrimental effects on school, work, and social life.

Keep reading to learn about substance abuse in college students and how to get help.

Causes of Substance Abuse in College Students

Using alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs can be a way to self-medicate in stressful times. But college is also a time of experimentation and discovery. Students may want to try these substances to see how they feel or because of peer pressure.

Let’s explore some of the most common causes of substance abuse during the college years.


We all experience the unpleasant feeling and side effects of stress. But college can be a particularly effective breeding ground for constant pressure. Approximately 80% of college students reported feeling consistently stressed.

So where does all this stress stem from?

  • Lack of sleep
  • Increased workload
  • Family pressure
  • Academic pressure
  • Homesickness
  • Loneliness
  • Social anxiety
  • Financial problems
  • Balancing school and part-
  • Time work
Social Pressure

College campuses present a whole new world of social pressure for students. Making friends and establishing social groups is difficult. Sharing alcohol and drugs can be used as a social bonding activity to make new friends.

Students who suffer from social anxiety or are generally shy may use alcohol to relax. Alcohol’s ability to make us feel more social can then lead to full-blown substance abuse.

Since college is a time for exploring boundaries, students may be curious about drugs and alcohol. Without their parents’ watchful eyes, the freedom to try new things can be tempting. But it can also quickly spiral into substance abuse.

College Culture

If you’ve ever watched an American college movie, you know how the media portrays college culture. Fraternities, sororities, and all-night parties are common aspects.

Studies have found that alcohol consumption rates are significantly higher in Greek life. Fraternities and sororities more often use alcohol as a bonding experience. Also, students who were part of the Greek system engaged in binge drinking more often.

Living away from parents can make it easier to develop substance abuse problems. A student’s history and genetics can also influence their risk for addiction. Young adults with a history of psychological disorders may use substances to cope with their symptoms.

What Are the Most Abused Drugs?

Traditionally, alcohol seemed to be the substance of choice for college students. It’s cheap and readily available. But what about drugs?

The most commonly used drugs on college campuses are marijuana, cocaine, psychedelics, stimulants, and painkillers.


Marijuana has become the most popular drug on college campuses. There has been a 7% increase in the past five years, specifically for college students. Nearly 6% of students say they use marijuana daily or almost daily.

The legalization of marijuana in many states might be the key reason. In states like California, where it has been legal for five years, getting marijuana is very easy. A student can visit their local dispensary and legally buy whatever they like.

This has also changed the cultural view of marijuana. Its legality makes it less “evil” or illicit. Marijuana is now viewed as being on the same level as alcohol for college students. And its relaxing properties might seem like the perfect solution for stressed students.

The popularity of vaping has rapidly increased the use of marijuana. Between 2017 and 2018, marijuana vaping doubled among college students. It has also led to a doubling of nicotine vaping in the same year.


Cocaine is an illegal substance that can lead to serious drug addictions and even jail time. But that hasn’t stopped college students from partaking.

Studies show that college-aged individuals are the biggest consumers of cocaine. It’s also the fourth most popular drug on college campuses.


Also known as hallucinogenics, popular psychedelic drugs on campus include mushrooms and LSD. Although not as common in past decades, these drugs are making a comeback.

Hallucinogenic use among college students has had a 4% increase between 2019 and 2020. This shift might be due to the change in cultural perception. More and more people are seeing these drugs as alternative therapies for psychological issues.


Stimulants, like Adderall, are often known as study drugs. They can be used by students to increase focus and motivation. When prescribed for psychological disorders, they are legal and a great help!

But students who don’t have disorders like ADHD often abuse stimulants for academic purposes. Approximately 11% of college, mostly male students, misuse Adderall. College students are also more likely to abuse stimulants than non-college students.


Although there has been a significant drop in opioid abuse, many college students still use them. Opioids are a class of drugs that are commonly known as painkillers.

OxyContin and Vicodin are prescription drugs that help with pain relief. When prescribed by a doctor, they can be legally used to manage pain after a surgery or illness. But illegally acquired opioids can lead to severe drug dependency.

Signs and Warning Symptoms

While each drug has its specific symptoms, there are some common signs of substance abuse.

Common signs of substance abuse include:
  • Poor academic performance
  • Skipping classes
  • Mood changes and mood swings
  • A decline in hygiene or appearance
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and passions
  • Problematic behaviors like unprotected sex
  • Aggression and getting into fights
  • Lying and manipulation

It’s important to remember that these symptoms can also be indicators of other issues. Mental health disorders like depression and anxiety have similar signs. If you or someone you know fits this description, it’s best to seek counseling.

Negative Effects of Substance Abuse

Drugs and alcohol are toxins that affect the whole body. Drug addictions can lead to a decline in health along with mental, social, and academic issues.

Physical Health

If you abuse drugs or alcohol for a long time, you’ll see a decline in your physical health. One of the biggest health risks is how substances affect your essential organs. Drug and alcohol misuse can damage your lungs, heart, brain, and liver.

Other physical effects can include:

  • Decreased immune system
  • Increased risk of certain cancers
  • Skin and hair problems
  • Infertility or erectile dysfunction
  • Vision and oral problems
  • Unhealthy weight loss or weight gain
Mental Health

The odds of having a psychiatric disorder along with substance abuse is about 3.6%. Not only are they highly comorbid but drugs and alcohol can also affect your daily mental health.

The most common effects can include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Trouble focusing
  • Lack of motivation
  • Unclear or illogical thinking
  • Increased aggression
  • Depression and mood swings
  • Anxious thoughts

The worst part of dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues is the vicious cycle they create. Students who experience these problems may use drugs or alcohol to cope. But the after-effects of substance abuse can enhance the negative feelings.

Social Issues

Drug addiction has been shown to increase feelings of loneliness and isolation. As a user becomes more dependent on drugs, they may withdraw more into themselves. Avoiding social activities can result in losing important relationships.

Another problem tied to social issues is falling in with a negative social circle. If the student has a binge drinking disorder and is part of a drink-loving group, they can never get away from alcohol.

Social Issues

The first goal of attending college is to get a good education and expand on knowledge. Addiction can derail that goal and cause students to:

  • Skip classes
  • Forget or fail tests
  • Spend less time studying
  • Miss out on opportunities
  • Lose focus and motivation
  • Be put on academic probation
  • Get expelled

Even very academically-motivated students can feel these effects due to addiction. They might then see their academic progress declining and resort to other drugs to keep up.

What are Colleges Doing to Help?

Colleges, of course, want their students to be healthy, safe, and happy. There are several programs in effect to educate and guide students about addiction.

Collegiate Recovery Programs (CPRs)

CRPs are programs put in place by the college to support students going through recovery. They include educational and support services in a community setting.


CollegeAIM is a program developed alongside the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. It provides schools with a framework for effective alcohol interventions.

The guide suggests interventions for high-risk college students. Freshmen, student-athletes, and members of Greek organizations are considered the most high-risk. It also provides suggestions on school-wide interventions.

School-specific Strategies

Many colleges are implementing strategies to reduce the presence of drugs and alcohol on campus. Most of these include offering alternatives for sober living, such as:

  • Alcohol-free parties and events
  • Zero tolerance dorm rooms
  • Access to counseling services
  • Longer working hours at libraries and recreational facilities
  • Drug and alcohol awareness events

These interventions may reduce feelings of isolation and social anxiety. They might also provide healthy outlets for stress and negative emotions.

What Can You Do to help?

If your friend or loved one is suffering from alcohol or drug addiction, knowing what to say can be tough. Often, people with addictions are in denial about their problems. They won’t accept help or even talk about their issues.

Regardless, if you want to help, you need to have a conversation with them. It’s important to learn some do’s and don’ts for a successful dialogue.

If your friend or loved one is suffering from alcohol or drug addiction, knowing what to say can be tough. Often, people with addictions are in denial about their problems. They won’t accept help or even talk about their issues.

Regardless, if you want to help, you need to have a conversation with them. It’s important to learn some do’s and don’ts for a successful dialogue.

How to Deal With College and Addiction

Succeeding in college is tough enough without the burden of addiction. Drug and alcohol abuse can impact every aspect of a student’s life. From academics to social skills to physical health.

Seeking help for substance abuse can be difficult and scary. But finding the right rehabilitation center can be a huge relief. There are so many different programs available depending on your preferences.

If you think you might need extra attention and supervision, an inpatient program is best. These programs require you to live in the facility and focus on detox first and recovery second. You’ll be able to get treatment, counseling, and a variety of holistic approaches in one place.

Maybe you don’t have the time, money, or ability to enroll in an in-patient program. In that case, outpatient treatment might be your solution. You can live at home and attend treatment three times a week.

The best course of action is an in-patient program followed by outpatient treatment. This helps prevent relapse and raises the chances of recovery. Post-recovery aftercare is also very important. Alumni of the recovery program can attend meetings to keep the momentum going.

Ready to Take Control?

If you’re tired of relying on drugs or alcohol to deal with the daily stressors of college, it’s time to take control. Attending a drug or alcohol rehab program is like investing in your future.

Finding the right program, with a focus on detox, recovery, and aftercare is crucial. Additionally, holistic approaches can help mentally and physically while recovering. Using professional services is the best way to deal with college and addiction problems.

Explore Southern California Sunrise Recovery Center’s programs to get more information. Take the first step toward recovery today!

References & Resources

  1. Dramatic increases in vaping marijuana, nicotine among US college students, young adults. University of Michigan News. (2020, September 17). Retrieved from
  2. Hosseinbor, M., Yassini Ardekani, S. M., Bakhshani, S., &; Bakhshani, S. (2014, August 25). Emotional and social loneliness in individuals with and without substance dependence disorder. International journal of high risk behaviors &; addiction. Retrieved from
  3. Lewi, A. L. Ã. J. (n.d.). Woke about Coke? investigating college students’ expectancies of experimenting with cocaine, in the midst of the fentanyl epidemic. Intersect: The Stanford Journal of Science, Technology, and Society. Retrieved 2021, from
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, October 1). Drug and alcohol use in college-age adults in 2018. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved 2021, from
  5. Peer pressure and substance abuse. Addiction Center. (2021, October 27). Retrieved 2021, from
  6. PW;, C. J. R. P. C. A. M. (n.d.). Alcohol use in the Greek system: Follow the leader? Journal of studies on alcohol. Retrieved 2021, from
  7. Roberts, C. (2021, September 10). Survey: U.S. college students drank less, used more marijuana and psychedelics during covid-19. Forbes. Retrieved from
  8. SAMHSA, C. for B. H. S. and Q. (n.d.). Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Section 6 pe tables – results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed tables, Samhsa, CBHSQ. Retrieved from
  9. Stress: An epidemic among college students. The American Institute of Stress. (2019, September 6). Retrieved from
  10. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, September 8). Marijuana use at historic high among college-aged adults in 2020. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from
  11. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Comorbidity of alcoholism and psychiatric disorders. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved from
  12. WebMD. (n.d.). Adderall abuse on college campuses: Everything you need to know. WebMD. Retrieved from