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Drug Use in High School

Teens sitting in a circle in a bedroom drinking and smoking

High school is a unique time of exploration and pushing boundaries. It is important for teens to learn through experience, but drug use in high school can have significant short- and long-term consequences. While teen drug abuse has seen significant reductions since the 1990s, thousands of teenagers continue to abuse alcohol, prescription drugs, and illicit substances recreationally.

Why Do Teens Start Using Drugs?

Some of the most common reasons that teens do drugs include:

  • Peer pressure
  • Desire to “fit in”
  • Academic and social stress
  • Boredom
  • Curiosity

Teen Stress and Pressure

High school students today face unprecedented pressure to excel both academically and socially. Even high-achieving students who seem to be well-adjusted may use drugs to manage stress and pressure.

The best thing parents can do to help teenagers manage stress and pressure is to be objective and supportive. Kids are unlikely to turn to a parent for help or advice if they are worried that punishment will be the only outcome. This is not to say that punishment doesn’t have a place in parenting, however. Your teen should feel confident that even if they face a punishment, they will also receive support and objective advice from a trusted adult. Many parents find that it is helpful to remember a time when they were teenagers and needed advice.

Common Drugs Used By Teens

Thankfully, drug use among high school students has dropped significantly from its peak in the 1990s. Drugs that are commonly misused by teenagers include:

  • Alcohol
  • E-cigarettes
  • Marijuana
  • Prescription drugs (such as Adderall, Ritalin, OxyContin, and Vicodin)

Cocaine, heroin and other illicit drugs that were popular in past decades have seen a substantial drop in use among high school students. Less than 1% of adolescents aged 12 to 17 report that they have ever used either drug.

Teen Drug Statistics

Drug and alcohol use among high school students has dropped substantially across the country since the 1990s, but drug use is still relatively common. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), alcohol was by far the most commonly used drug among adolescents aged 12 to 17. Nearly 21% reported that they had consumed alcohol within the past year, and 9% reported alcohol use within the past month.

The NSDUH also found the following statistics about teen substance use:

  • Marijuana was used by 12.5% of teenagers within the past year, and 6.7% in the past month
  • Prescription stimulants (Adderall, Ritalin) were misused by nearly 5%
  • Prescription pain relievers (OxyContin, Vicodin) were misused by nearly 3%
  • Prescription sedatives (Xanax, Valium) were misused by nearly 2%
  • Less than 1% reported having used LSD (0.8%), ecstasy (0.5%), cocaine (0.4%), methamphetamine (0.2%) and heroin (0%).

In Florida, high school students have seen a similar reduction in drug use since the 1990s, and the state’s drug use trends are similar to those of the rest of the nation.

Older students are more likely to use drugs and alcohol. Teenage drug abuse statistics provided by the Monitoring the Future survey provide data on 8th, 10th and 12th graders individually. While the national average for monthly alcohol use among adolescents aged 12 to 17 was 9% in 2018, more than 30% of 12th graders reported having used alcohol within the past month. Similarly, marijuana has an overall monthly prevalence of 6.7% among teenagers, but more than 20% of 12th graders reported marijuana use within the past 30 days.

Dangers of Adolescent Drug Use

Although alcohol use is sometimes considered a normal part of high school, a vast body of literature has shown that regular alcohol consumption by adolescents can have significant negative effects on brain development. Many scientists have found that regular alcohol use is significantly worse for proper brain development than regular marijuana use, though both alcohol and marijuana have an overall negative impact. Alcohol is also significantly more likely to be associated with aggressive behavior and fatal road accidents than marijuana.

Normal development during adolescence is important for lifelong health and wellness. When a teenager’s development is disrupted by alcohol or drug misuse, the teenager can develop learning and memory impairments that substantially restrict their potential for the rest of their life. The earlier a substance use disorder develops, the more long-term damage it can do.

Signs of Drug Use in Teens

Teenagers can sometimes be challenging to interact with, so it can be difficult to differentiate between normal teenage behavior and red flags for drug use. The best way to determine whether your teen might be using drugs or alcohol is to maintain a consistent and healthy relationship with them. By doing so, it will be easier to spot unusual behavior.

Common signs of drug use include:

  • Changes in behavior
  • New friend groups at the expense of old ones
  • Evasiveness
  • Missing school
  • Slipping grades
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
  • Lack of motivation
  • Neglect of personal hygiene
  • Weight changes
  • Mood instability
  • Bloodshot eyes or pinpoint pupils
  • Paraphernalia

Some adults have suggested mandatory high school drug testing. Proponents believe that it will deter drug use among students and provide schools with a way to better allocate resources for teens struggling with substance misuse. Opponents believe that mandatory drug testing undermines high school students and can cause serious harm in the case of a false positive.

Random drug testing does not address the reasons why students use drugs. In addition, given that alcohol is the most widely used substance and is arguably the most dangerous one consumed, mandatory drug testing essentially ignores the most significant substance of misuse.

Getting Help for Your Teen

If you suspect that your teen is using drugs or alcohol, it may be time for an open, non-judgmental conversation with them. It may be difficult to maintain a calm demeanor, but many parents have learned the hard way that outrage and strict punishment can cause them to lose access to their teenager completely. While punishment is a necessary part of parenting, so is being supportive, honest and non-judgmental when your teen needs help.

If you are concerned that your teen is using drugs or alcohol, professional help is available. The Next Generation Village is a comprehensive teen drug rehab facility that uses evidence-based methods to help teenagers overcome substance use disorders and achieve long-term success. Contact us today to learn how we can help you and your teen.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village 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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