Commonly Abused Drugs at College

Heading off to college opens up a whole new world of challenges and experiences. Unfortunately, drug use in college students can be one of those.

Not every student partakes, but enough do where it’s cause for concern. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) released findings from its Monitoring the Future survey, examining the behaviors of adults ages 19-22. It collected data on both college students and other young people about the most used drug in college and other settings.

The 2018 survey stated that marijuana use among college-age adults increased in the previous five years. The statistics included vaping with marijuana. Nicotine vaping was up also.

It used to be that college students used marijuana less often than their noncollege peers, but in 2018 it evened out among both groups, with around 43 percent using marijuana. What’s more, smoking marijuana is at the highest it’s been the last 35 years for the two groups.

Other findings for college students include:

  • 5.6 percent admitted to daily marijuana use (20 or more uses in the past 30 days)
  • Vaping nicotine doubled from 2017-18, from 6.1 percent to 15.5 percent
  • Opioid misuse declined, from 5.4 percent in 2013 to 2.7 percent in 2018
  • 11.1 percent of students abused Adderall, with use being higher among college men (14.6 percent) than women (8.8 percent)
  • Binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks in a short period of time) dropped to 28 percent, the first time it dipped below 30 percent

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s Campus Drug Prevention site published a College Prescription Drug Study for 2018 that surveyed nearly 20,000 students. Of that group:

  • 9.1 percent said they misused pain medications
  • 9.4 percent admitted misusing sedatives
  • 15.9 percent reported misusing stimulants

Reasons they cited for drug use included getting high, relieving pain, helping sleep, reducing anxiety, and improving focus or grades.

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Study Drugs

College kids might be getting the message that drug use and excessive drinking is bad. Sort of.

Drinking to excess and abusing opioids may be down, but marijuana use and vaping are up. Drug use among college students is still a concern, especially when it comes to stimulants. Use of Adderall and other “study drugs” has jumped in the last few decades.

Adderall is a drug college students use to study. “Study drugs” are typically prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When used as intended, the drugs boost dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that play a role in motivation, memory, and focus.

The drugs raise the neurotransmitters’ levels in the central nervous system, thereby improving concentration for those with ADHD.

There are a number of stimulants, specifically amphetamines (Adderall, for example) and methylphenidates (Concerta, Ritalin) typically prescribed for ADHD or narcolepsy that are favored by college students to keep awake during crunch times.

What is the most popular drug on college campuses? Actually, when it comes to study drugs, there are several, including

  • Adderall
  • Concerta
  • Dexedrine
  • Focalin
  • Provigil
  • Ritalin
  • Vyvanse

Reasons for taking Study Drugs

Students take study drugs believing they improve learning, memory, and focus. The authors of some studies think the drugs make students feel as if they have more energy and drive to get work done while they are using these stimulants. But in reality, using drugs in this way doesn’t provide a real cognitive improvement. A dose might keep someone awake long enough to bang out a thousand words for a paper, but it’s not going to help him or her prove a thesis statement.

Because they’re perceived as study aids, there is a black market for pills such as Vyvanse, Adderall, Ritalin, and other drugs on college campuses.

According to the College Prescription Drug Study, obtaining such drugs isn’t that hard to do. Sixteen percent of respondents said getting pain medications for nonmedical use was easy. Twenty percent had little trouble securing sedatives, and 28 percent said the same about stimulants.

Most admitted they received nonprescribed pharmaceuticals from friends. The International Journal of Drug Policy survey questioned nearly 30,000 people online about their drug use in 2017 and surveyed nearly 80,000 people in 2015. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. respondents said they’d used so-called nonprescribed study drugs in 2017, up from 20 percent two years earlier. A lot of those are tied to ADHD diagnoses.

As to how people obtained the drugs:

  • 48 percent obtained them through friends
  • 10 percent, from a dealer or online
  • 6 percent, from a family member
  • 4 percent had their own prescriptions

Socially, people take the drugs for a number of reasons. To stay up longer, to relax, to cut pain, to get over social anxiety (less shy, more chatty). Some are taken to lose weight since they cancut appetite.

Because the drugs are legal — to those who have prescriptions — there is less of a stigma about prescription drug use among college students that selling or sharing such drugs is wrong. They’re sometimes just seen as performance-enhancers, like an athlete taking steroids for the big game. Some students may self-diagnose, believing because they’re having a hard time focusing on a project that they must have ADHD.

Because ADHD drugs are Schedule II, concerned highly addictive by the DEA, it’s a felony to deal them.

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Dangers of Non-Medical Drugs

Even if there is a slight chance that study drugs might help memory, there are risks of side effects. Drugs college students use include Adderall, which can cause insomnia. (Of course, during finals week, preventing sleep can hold appeal for people eager to study and get things done.) Other side effects are less convenient, however. Health risks include:

  • Raised blood pressure and heart rate
  • Narrowed blood vessels
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Dangerously high body temperature
  • Seizures
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Psychosis
  • Anger
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations

Reduced blood flow and a higher heart rate are especially troubling, especially if a user has a pre-existing heart condition. Cardiac arrests and even death are possibilities. When combined with alcohol, the depressant effect of intoxicants can be masked, increasing the danger of alcohol poisoning. If a habit has formed from excessive use, withdrawal can produce depression, insomnia, and fatigue.

Studies have shown that there are no discernible benefits to taking these stimulants off-label. Even in cases where short-term memory may receive a boost, the lack of sleep and other negative side effects outweigh any potential gains. As for the perception that these stimulants are key to top-performing students’ success, that’s a myth. Evidence seems to point to the medications being detrimental to already high-functioning scholars. Drug use among college students does much more harm than good.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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