Attending college can be a milestone for many young adults stepping out on their own for the first time. When young adults experience freedom for the first time, they could be susceptible to negative behaviors, like drug and alcohol use. Therefore, it is crucial to know the common drugs used by college students, the signs of addiction, and how to help.

Launch Centers of Los Angeles, California is here to help college students who struggle with addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Our programs help young adults find the right path to success with coping skills and tools for long-term recovery from addiction.

Alcohol, marijuana, prescription medications, and stimulants are among the most commonly used and abused substances on college campuses. Misuse and addiction can also occur with the use of any psychoactive substance, such as psychedelics, opioids, or party drugs.

Stats About College Students Using Drugs

The 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) highlights national statistics regarding drug use in the US. According to the survey, “40.3 million people aged 12 or older (or 14.5% of this population) had [a substance use disorder] in the past year.” Young adults within the ages of typical college students had the highest numbers of substance abuse in 2020.

NSDUH defines substance use disorder broadly as any substance, like alcohol, prescription drug misuse, or illicit drugs. In addition, NSDUH shares statistics on alcohol and illicit drug use disorders. Alcohol and illicit drug use overlap because many young adults use both.

Among young adults aged 18 to 25, NSDUH shares the following stats from 2020:

  • 24.4% or 8.2 million young adults had a substance use disorder in the past year
  • 15.6% or 5.2 million had an alcohol use disorder in the past year
  • 14.6% or 4.9 million had an illicit drug use disorder in the past year

College students and non-college young adults might have some differences in substance use. In fact, non-college young adults might be more vulnerable to certain substances than college students, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). These substances include marijuana and opioid prescriptions.

All in all, most of the broad statistics about all 18 to 25 year-olds apply to college students. Still, certain drugs appear on college campuses more often than others. 

How Many Drugs are on Campus?

Several types of drugs appear on college campuses. Most college students are experiencing a lack of supervision for the first time. Without parental oversight, young adults could be tempted to try drugs they might otherwise turn down for fear of getting into trouble. In addition, this lack of supervision could lead to an overwhelming presence of substances on campus.

As students come from different backgrounds and places, they could have varying attitudes and beliefs about drug abuse. Some students could also come from states where certain drugs are legal, like marijuana. These factors, therefore, could lead to students being exposed to several types of drugs. Still, it is important to be aware of the most common drugs used by college students.

6 Most Common Drugs Used by College Students

Many college students use 5 common drugs. The drugs that college students most often use are easily accessible or associated with “partying.” In addition, some students abuse specific drugs to self-medicate for stress or mental health issues. Students also use drugs to enhance their ability to perform in sports or academics.

The following are the most common drugs used by college students in the US:


Approximately 80% of college students consume alcohol, with half of that number engaging in binge drinking behaviors.

Alcohol is common among college students, primarily because of its social acceptance and accessibility. Drinking is legal for most older college students. However, the legality of alcohol doesn’t make it any safer to use.

Binge drinking is a common practice among college students. When binge drinking, students consume large amounts of alcohol within a short amount of time. This dangerous behavior is often part of hazing rituals for fraternities or other groups. 


30% of long-term marijuana users report becoming addicted to the drug.

Marijuana use is steadily increasing in popularity among college students, with a higher percentage of students claiming to have smoked marijuana than cigarettes. While marijuana is gaining legal status in several states, it can still be harmful to college students. Marijuana causes feelings of relaxation and euphoria. However, these feelings can lead to a lack of motivation and impaired judgment.

Studies have revealed that smoking cannabis can have a harmful impact on intellectual capacity, particularly in terms of memory and focus, which could be especially detrimental for college students. Some students might use marijuana to ease the anxiety of college life. Unfortunately, their grades and performance can suffer as a result.  

Prescription Drugs

Prescription drug abuse among college students usually involves medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Medications like Adderall and Ritalin stimulate brain activity to increase focus and attention. Therefore, college students abuse these medications to study for long hours or work on school projects.

Students with a prescription might misuse their medications by using more than the prescribed dosage. In addition, these students might sell pills to friends during finals week.  


9% of long-term ecstasy users report becoming addicted to the drug.

Ecstasy is popular during festivals or parties called “raves.” Ecstasy, also called “molly” or MDMA, causes intense feelings of happiness in users. However, once the effects wear off, users can feel extremely depressed.

Depression follows as a result of a depletion of “feel-good” chemicals that were overloaded while on the drug. The brain needs time to restore these chemicals, and many users get deeply depressed in the days after using ecstasy. Other negative effects of MDMA use can include anxiety, sleep issues, and cognitive impairment. These effects can lead to poor performance in school, issues with relationships, and mental health issues.


Approximately 17% of long-term cocaine users report becoming addicted to the drug.

Cocaine is a potent stimulant drug that college students might use while partying. Like ecstasy, cocaine depletes the brain’s feel-good chemicals. As a result, users feel a “crash” after the high on cocaine. Once the effects of cocaine wear off, users are likely to consume more to avoid the crash. Thus, the cycle of addiction begins.

Cocaine is especially dangerous because it can have a variety of negative physical consequences such as cardiac issues, respiratory failure, or stroke. Like many of the other drugs we’ve listed, cocaine can also cause cognitive issues and lead to mental health disorders or poor academic performance.


Approximately 5% of full-time college students have misused hallucinogens in the past twelve months.

Hallucinogens are among the most commonly abused drugs on college campuses. This category of drug includes LSD, Psilocybin (mushrooms), DMT, Ketamine, and PCP. Hallucinogens change the way people understand, think, and experience the world around them. They can lead to hallucinations, which are false ideas that don’t exist in reality, as well as other warped sensory experiences.

While some may take hallucinogens hoping for spiritual or therapeutic gain, they can pose a risk due to numerous factors. Mental side effects of hallucinogens include loss of touch with reality, hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, and depression. Physical side effects can include elevated heart rate, blood pressure, or body temperature, along with vomiting, nausea, and muscular weakness.

Risk Factors for Addiction in College Students

young woman leans against a brick wall feeling upset

Not all college students will use drugs or alcohol during college. Among those who do, not all of them will develop an addiction. Therefore, addiction in college students is more common among those with certain risk factors.

Risk factors for drug or alcohol addiction in college students include:

  • Substance use during high school
  • History of abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional)
  • Trauma
  • Mental health issues
  • Being bullied in school
  • Low self-esteem
  • Social anxiety
  • Poor coping skills for stress
  • Lack of parental involvement

Even without these previous risk factors, the college environment itself can be a place that encourages experimentation with drugs and alcohol through:

  • Increased academic stress
  • Easy access to substances
  • Peer pressure
  • Lack of adult supervision
  • Party and/or frat culture

Even without these risk factors, repeated use of drugs and alcohol can cause an addiction. Drug and alcohol use can change the way your brain functions. As a result, your brain relies on these substances or expects the effects. Thus, when you don’t use or drink, you might have unpleasant withdrawal symptoms or cravings that lead to continued substance abuse.

In addition, young adults are more susceptible to developing an addiction than older adults. This is because a young adult’s brain continues to develop until around age 25. Therefore, most college students have developing brains that can easily become dependent on drugs and alcohol.

Signs of Addiction in College Students

While not all drug or alcohol use will lead to addiction, college students are at an age of increased risk. Hence, knowing common drugs used by college students is important to identify addiction or substance abuse. 

The following are signs of addiction in college students:

  • Decreased school and extracurricular performance
  • Mood swings 
  • Disciplinary issues
  • Legal problems
  • Risky behaviors, like unprotected sex or reckless driving
  • Isolation
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  • Secretive behaviors
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Sloppy or disheveled appearance
  • Lack of personal hygiene 
  • Drastic changes in finances

College students, as well as young adults in the same age bracket, are often experimenting to find their identity. They might change their interests or appearance as they explore who they are. However, experimenting with drugs and alcohol is risky and can lead to negative consequences.

Above all, when you notice significant changes for the worse, addiction might be the cause. Healthy identity exploration does not lead to poor physical or mental health outcomes. Therefore, addiction might be present when a college student changes for the worse and not the better.

What to Do if You Know an Addicted College Student

If you know an addicted college student, the best thing to do is address your concerns in a nonjudgmental way. Many concerned loved ones, especially parents, might feel the need to lecture or impose punishments right away. However, addiction is a complex disease that will not get better unless you understand the full nature of the issue.

When you understand common drugs used by college students it allows for a better conversation when approaching someone you think is facing addiction or substance abuse. 

Steps to Having a Conversation About Addiction

With the above tips in mind, you can start to have a conversation. Remember that you aren’t assuming, judging, or blaming. You must focus on understanding the issue before thinking about the consequences. First, you want to share what your concerns are specifically. For instance, you might say, “I’ve noticed that you quit the basketball team this semester. I thought you loved basketball—why did you choose to quit?” 

Next, you need to simply listen to what is going on. If you’ve noticed other signs of addiction, share your concerns about these issues. For example, “I’ve also seen that your grades are slipping, and you haven’t been showering regularly. I’m worried that something is wrong.” Finally, if a student does have an addiction, you want to assure them that you are here to help. They might have an underlying mental health issue requiring treatment. In addition, they might need to spend time in rehab before returning or college.

Tips for Talking About Addiction to College Students

When addressing your concerns, you want to understand the situation first. Therefore, it is essential to open up a dialogue. In this way, you can simply listen to get to the root of the issue at hand.

Keep these tips in mind when talking to a college student about addiction:

  • Ask open-ended questions which create a better conversation than asking “yes” or “no” questions. You can say things like, “how often do you go out to parties?” or “who do you hang out with on the weekends?”
  • Actively listen to what is being said. You need to show that you are paying attention by making eye contact, asking clarifying questions, and simply nodding along to the conversation.
  • Minimize distractions by talking to a college student in a private place to focus solely on them. In addition, turn off or silence your cell phone and find a place where you both feel comfortable.
  • Never assume that you know the reasons for your concerns. While drug use is common among college students, other issues might be the cause of your concerns.
  • Take breaks if the conversation gets intense. Parents especially might feel shocked, disappointed, or angry if their child is addicted to drugs. When emotions flare up, take some time to calm down before getting back to the conversation.
  • Get support for yourself if the student’s behavior is upsetting to you. You might need to talk to another trusted person or a parenting partner. You can also join a support group for loved ones of addicts, like Al-Anon.

Addiction Treatment for College Students in Los Angeles, CA

College students are often exposed to drugs and alcohol, especially when living away from home or on campus. If you are concerned about a college student in your life, Launch Centers of Los Angeles, California offers drug and alcohol rehab for young adults. Our life skills and career development program can help college students manage addiction while getting back on track in their academic pursuits. Call us today or visit our admissions page to learn more.

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