Most Common Drugs Abused by Young Adults and College Students

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At a time when it feels like the United States is split in two, there still remain several issues that affect everybody regardless of what their political, religious, or social views are. One of those issues is drug abuse, and it is occurring at an extremely high rate in young adults between the ages of 18-25. 

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported in 2018 that young adults within this age group are not only abusing alcohol, but also several different types of drugs. In fact, 1 in 7 young adults has a substance use disorder. It is certainly not uncommon to see drug abuse occurring in this age group, as this is often a time for exploration and the first taste of freedom for these individuals. By 18, many individuals move out of the home they grew up in and start making their way in the world by attending college or going straight into the workforce, where they will likely encounter opportunities to use drugs. NSDUH reports the following regarding the young adult population and their relation to drugs:

  • 1 in 13 young adults has an illicit drug use disorder 
  • 1 in 17 young adults has a marijuana use disorder 
  • 1 in 100 young adults has an opioid use disorder

Young adults are also abusing prescription drugs in addition to illicit drugs, with Adderall and benzodiazepines like Xanax being the most in-demand. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the most commonly used drugs by young adults include the following (in consecutive order):

  • Hallucinogens
  • Cocaine
  • Opioids
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Meth
  • Heroin

Abusing drugs is never a good option, regardless of age. However, young adults between 18 and 25 are especially vulnerable to not only experimenting with drugs but also continuing to abuse them because their brains are still in the process of developing things such as impulse control and decision-making skills. Plus, paired with newfound freedom and excitement, experimenting with drugs can quickly become much more than a one-off incident.

Most Common Drugs Used by Young Adults and College Students

As mentioned before, the vast majority of young adults abuse hallucinogens and stimulants, followed closely behind by several other illicit, dangerous substances.


Hallucinogens are drugs that produce psychedelic effects when used. Some of the most common hallucinogens include PCP, ketamine, LSD, DXM, peyote, ayahuasca, and molly. When abused, hallucinogens like these interrupt the functioning of the brain, specifically by changing the way serotonin works. Depending on the type of hallucinogen that is being abused, the risks can range anywhere from headaches to death. 

Most popular among young adults and college students is molly, which is another name for MDMA (ecstasy). When used, it increases one’s mood significantly by triggering a rush of euphoria and pleasure. It is frequently used in clubs, festivals, or parties. 


Cocaine is a white powdery substance that is usually snorted through the nose. This stimulant drug produces a major shot of energy that can keep users awake and alert. It is common to see cocaine use on the party scene, as it is used on its own or to counteract the depressant effects of other substances like alcohol. Those wanting to study longer and harder may turn to the use of cocaine so they can get good grades, similar to how they would abuse a prescription stimulant like Adderall or Ritalin. Unfortunately, cocaine is highly addictive and abusing it can quickly lead to addiction. 


The opioid epidemic is affecting people of all ages, including young adults. When opioids are abused, they produce depressant effects, meaning that they slow everything down. So, young adults who are overwhelmed by stress, are anxious, or are hyped up on another substance may use opioids (like oxycodone or hydrocodone) as a way of self-medication. Like cocaine, however, opioids are habit-forming (even more so than cocaine). Even the use of opioids for a few days can create a mild dependence that quickly evolves into full blown-opioid addiction. 


Benzodiazepines, like Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin, are some of the most widely prescribed medications in the country. There is no doubt that these medications are readily available and fairly easy to access, making them a top go-to for young adults and college students. 

This period of time in the lives of these individuals can be extremely stressful and anxiety-producing. From being on their own, maintaining good grades, finding a job, and still trying to have fun, most young adults can feel the pressure fast. Benzodiazepines can quickly alleviate anxiety-provoking feelings. What might begin as the occasional use of an Ativan here or there can become routine for a young adult, and before they know it, they are using a benzodiazepine the very second they feel even the slightest bit anxious. Benzodiazepine abuse and subsequent addiction is not only deadly, but trying to get sober from them can also cost a person their life if they are not professionally supervised. 


Meth is a man-made drug that contains ingredients like lithium, acetone, hydrochloric acid, ammonia, and even paint thinner. More young adults and college students abuse other drugs, but that doesn’t mean that meth is being ignored. Meth is highly dangerous, as it can never be truly known what is in it since it is synthetic. It produces stimulant effects and the highest of highs, however coming down from it can trigger the onset of extreme, pervasive sadness and hopelessness. Anyone who abuses meth is likely going to struggle to hide it, as the abuse of a drug this hard produces effects both inwards and outwards. 

Any and all drug abuse that is done amongst young adults and college students is just as dangerous as any drug abuse done by people in other age groups. The typical benefits of being young (being in good physical shape, having healthy organs, etc.) do not protect young adults from the negative consequences of drug abuse or subsequent addiction.

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