Drug Use Among Youth: Facts & Statistics


The percentage of teenagers that knows someone who smokes, drinks or uses drugs during the school day.
The percentage of teenagers who used an illegal drug by the time they graduated high school.
The percentage of college students who use illicit drugs.


General Statistics:

  • In 2018, 23.9% of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 had tried illicit drugs:
    • 4% were female, 24.5% were male
    • 24% were non Hispanic white
    • 2% were black
    • 4% were American Indian/Alaska Native
    • 7% were Asian
    • 7% were two or more races
    • 2% were Hispanic

  • In 2018, nearly 30% of teens saw illegal drug use, and the most common place it took place was on school property
  • 78% of teens indicated their doctor or dentist never spoke to them about how addictive or dangerous prescription drugs can be
  • 55.8% of teens indicated the main deterrent to using alcohol or drugs was their parents (disapproval or getting in trouble)
  • In 2018, there were 4,633 drug overdose deaths among youths aged 15-24
  • In 2020, 47% of young people had used an illegal drug by the time they graduated from high school. Additionally, current users (within the past month) include:
    • 5% of 8th graders
    • 20% of 10th graders
    • 24% of 12th graders

  • Early to young adolescence is the most critical risk period for young people being initiated into substance abuse:
    • 70% of youth who try an illegal drug before age 13 develop a substance abuse disorder compared to 27% of youth who try an illegal drug after age 17
    • Every year that substance use is delayed during the period of adolescent brain development, the risk of addiction and substance abuse decreases
  • In 2018, 1.5% of all adolescents in the US, or 358,000 had both a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) and Major Depressive Episode (MDE) in the past year:
    • 1.2% of all adolescents had both an SUD and MDE resulting in severe impairment
    • 8.5% of adolescents with a MDE were more likely to binge drink than those without (4.1%)
    • 32.7% of adolescents with a MDE were more likely to use an illegal drug than those without (14%)
    • Among adolescents with both an MDE and SUD, 65.7% received either substance abuse treatment at a specialty facility or mental health services
  • In 2018, an estimated 863,000 adolescents needed substance abuse treatment but did not receive it at a specialty facility, and among them, only 15,000 perceived a need for treatment
  • In 2018, 159,000 or 0.3% of adolescents in the US aged 12 to 17 received substance abuse treatment with 83,000 receiving treatment at a specialty facility
  • American teenagers consume 11% of alcohol annually in the US by binge drinking
  • Alcohol is almost always a factor in the three leading causes of death among youth 15-24 years old: accidents, homicides, and suicides


Illegal Drug Abuse

2.7% of adolescents or 681,000 had an illegal drug use disorder in 2018, meaning clinically significant impairment including health issues, escalating use, and failure to meet responsibilities at home, work, or school:

  • 1% had a marijuana use disorder, compared to 5.9% of young adults aged 18-25
  • Less than 0.1% of adolescents had a cocaine use disorder, compared to 0.6% of young adults
  • Less than 0.1% of adolescents had a heroin use disorder, compared to 0.3% of young adults
  • 1% had a meth use disorder, compared to 0.4% of young adults

In 2018, 4.2 million or 16.7% of adolescents between age 12 and 17 used illegal drugs in the previous year:

  • 5% of adolescents used marijuana in the past year
  • 4% or 112,000 adolescents used cocaine, including 4,000 who used crack
  • 1% or 10,000 adolescents used heroin in the past year
  • 2% or 43,000 adolescents used methamphetamine in the past year
  • 5% or 376,000 adolescents used hallucinogens (LSD, PCP, Ecstasy, ketamine, mushrooms, etc.
  • 7% or 662,000 adolescents used inhalants

In recent years, the use of another synthetic drug called “bath salts” (synthetic cathinones) among youth has become a major concern. The MTF survey began tracking past-year cathinone use, and since 2012, there has been a decrease among 12th graders from 1.3% to 0.6% in 2017. Use among 10th graders has declined to 0.4% from a peak of 0.9% in 2013.

In 2018, the states with the most juvenile arrests for drug abuse were:

  • Wyoming, with 1082 arrests
  • South Dakota, with 935 arrests
  • Utah, with 636 arrests
  • Nebraska, with 605 arrests
  • North Dakota, with 584 arrests


The most commonly used drug among youth, marijuana causes negative effects over time that are often difficult for users to discern. 43% of college students and 36% of high schoolers report frequent use.

Every day in 2018, 3,700 adolescents between ages 12 and 17 tried marijuana for the first time. To compare:

  • Per day, 3,300 young adults (18-25) initiated the use of marijuana
  • Per day, 1,400 persons 26 and older initiated use of marijuana

Teens are increasingly using marijuana through vaping as it is easier to transport and hide. In 2019, usage of marijuana via vaping among high schoolers had significantly increased:

  • 9% of 8th-graders
  • 6% of 10th graders, an increase from 7% in 2017
  • 14% of 12th graders, an increase from 7.5% in 2017 marking the largest increase recorded

The problems stemming from marijuana use are only amplified in youth:

  • 25-50% of daily marijuana users become addicted to it, especially with increasingly stronger levels of THC bred into popular strains
  • Teenage girls who use marijuana are 5 times more likely to face depression by age 21
  • Students who use marijuana have poorer educational outcomes than those who do not
  • A month of abstinence from marijuana improves memory in adolescents
  • In Colorado, where marijuana is legal for those over 21, youth use it at a rate 40% higher than the national average with 7.89% of adolescents between age 12-17 trying it
    • 02% of adolescents aged 12-17 use marijuana in the last month compared to the 6.46% national rate
    • 34% of adolescents dabbed marijuana, 36% ingested it as edibles
    • In 2017, marijuana represented the nature of over half of law enforcement contact with students
    • In 2018, marijuana usage among students represented 77% of law enforcement referrals compared to 23% other drug violations, and 71% of expulsions compared to 29% expulsions for other drug violations

Marijuana concentrates or “dabs” can contain 40-90% THC, which could be higher than 4 times the amount of THC in marijuana. These concentrates can cause serious harm to individuals unaware of the level of THC they are consuming or from the toxic chemicals produced during the process, such as benzene and methacrolein.

Synthetic Cannabinoids/K2/”Fake” Marijuana

Synthetic cannabinoids (street names Spice, K2, Blaze, RedX Dawn, Paradise, Demon, Black Magic, Spike, Mr. Nice Guy, Ninja, Zohai, Dream, Genie, Sence, Smoke, Skunk, Serenity, Yucatan, Fire, and Crazy Clown) are marketed as a cheap alternative to marijuana but are in fact dangerous or even life-threatening. Marketed as “incense” or “potpourri” they are often found in convenience stores, head shops, and on the internet. They might be labeled “not for human consumption” but are most definitely intended as a psychoactive drug targeted to youth and lower-income populations.

  • As of April 2020, there were nearly 300 exposures to synthetic cannabinoids reported by the American Association of Poison Control Centers*
    • In 2019, there were 1,993 total, a significant decrease from 7,792 in 2015
  • Spice is the 2nd most commonly abused drug after marijuana among high schoolers and can result in acute psychotic episodes, stroke, seizures, permanent brain damage/lowered IQ,  or death
  • Synthetic cannabinoids bind to the same receptors in the brain as marijuana but they are hundreds of times more potent and cause far more damage
  • The chemicals used in spice change constantly to skirt laws. In 2018, over 160 cases of severe bleeding and 4 deaths occurred in New Haven, CT within 2 days after K2 Spice was sold that contained ingredients used in rat poison
  • Between 2011 and 2017, over 31,000 calls to US poison control centers were made relating to the use of spice
  • Spice is usually smoked in the form of chemicals sprayed on some sort of plant material but is also available as a liquid to be vaped
  • Beginning in 2017, law enforcement/laboratories have discovered a rising amount of spice laced with fentanyl, the synthetic opioid responsible for more deaths than any other drug since 2018

*You can reach your local poison control center by calling the Poison Help hotline: 1-800-222-1222. To save the number in your mobile phone, text POISON to 797979.

Prescription Drug Abuse

In 2018, prescription drugs were also abused by adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17, with 310,000 using these drugs for the first time in the previous year:

  • 5% or 369,000 adolescents abused prescription stimulants such as amphetamines, methylphenidates, anorectic stimulants, modafinil, Adderall, Desoxyn, etc.
  • 8% or 460,000 adolescents abused prescription tranquilizers or sedatives, such as benzodiazepine tranquilizers like lorazepam, clonazepam, or diazepam products, muscle relaxants, or benzodiazepine sedatives
  • 8% or 695,000 of adolescents abused pain relievers such as hydrocodone products, oxycodone products, and buprenorphine

Alcohol Abuse in Youth

  • 6% of adolescents between age 12 and 17 had an alcohol use disorder
  • 1% of young adults between the age of 18 and 25 were regular alcohol users
  • 2 million or 4.7% of adolescents between age 12 and 17 were regular binge drinkers, compared to 5.8% in 2015
  • 131,000 or 1 out of every 200 adolescents were heavy drinkers, engaging in binge drinking on 5 or more days within the past month

Marijuana and alcohol consumed together is the most frequent combination of substances involved in car accidents. 

Alcohol increases the level of THC (marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient) in the blood

Understanding Drug Use & Youth:

The most common risk factors for youth and drug abuse include:

  • Trauma/childhood adversity
  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Mental health problems
  • Poverty
  • Peer substance abuse/availability
  • Negative school climate

Risk factors increase with age:

  • 61% of teens aged 15-17  have friends were substance abusers vs. 29% of teens aged 12-14
  • 8% of teens aged 15-17  find it easier to procure illegal heroin within a day vs. 3% of teens aged 12-14

Perception of the dangers of various substances varies among adolescents:

  • 6% perceive smoking marijuana once a week as risky
  • 6% perceive the use of cocaine once or twice a week as risky
  • 3% perceive the use of heroin once or twice a week as risky
  • 5% perceive binge drinking as risky
  • 8% perceive smoking one or more packs of cigarettes a day as risky

In 2018, among adolescents who had a co-occurring major depressive episode (MDE) and substance abuse disorder(SUD)  within the previous year, 65.7% received treatment in a specialty facility or substance abuse treatment facility:

  • 5% received both mental health care and specialty substance abuse treatment
  • 5% received only mental health care
  • 8% received only specialty substance abuse treatment
  • 1 in 3 people over the age of 12 had no health care coverage and could not afford the cost of substance abuse treatment

In 2018, 3.8% of adolescents aged 12 to 17 needed substance abuse treatment compared to 15.3% of young adults between the age of 18 and 25

College Students & Drug Abuse:

Only 58% of public education institutions offer readily accessible substance abuse assessment and counseling compared to 39% of private institutions

Excessive alcohol abuse is common on college campuses.

The rate of abuse of prescription drugs among college students is higher than their peers who are not attending college. In 2018:

  • 13% of college students used prescription drugs for recreational purposes
  • 39% were self-medicating
  • 76% indicated they were most likely to use them during finals or exams
  • 35% reported using illegal drugs in lieu of abusing prescription drugs
    • 93% used marijuana
    • 38% used cocaine
    • 28% used MDMA (ecstasy)
  • 21% of students gave prescribed medications to a friend or peer, and 11% of them sold them


Abuse of stimulants:

  • In 2018, 15.9% of college students reported using stimulants for non-medical purposes
    • 79% used them to study/improve their grades
    • 23% wanted to see what they felt like
    • 22% wanted to enhance social situations
    • 15% wanted to get high
    • 60% indicated a positive effect on their grades

Abuse of depressants:

  • In 2018, 9.4% of college students reported using sedatives for non-medical purposes
    • 53% used them for sleep
    • 49% used them to relieve anxiety
    • 34% used them to get high
    • 27% used them to see what they felt like
    • 37% experienced memory loss
    • 21% indicated they had done things they regretted
    • 19% indicated depression

Abuse of narcotics:

  • In 2018, 9.1% of college students reported using pain medications for non-medical purposes
    • 43% used them to get high
    • 40% used them to relieve pain
    • 34% used them to see what they felt like
    • 31% used them to relieve anxiety


Percentage of High School Students Reporting Use of Selected Substances in 2019

Type of Drug Use

8th Grade

10th Grade

12th Grade

Vaping: Nicotine

16.5% past year, 9.6% past month

30.7% past year, 19.9% past month

35.3% past year, 25.5% past month

Vaping: Marijuana

3.9% past year, 7.0% past month

19.4% past year, 12.6% past month

20.8% past year, 14% past month

Vaping: Just flavoring

14.7% past year, 7.7% past month

20.8% past year, 10.5% past month

20.3% past year, 10.7% past month

Tobacco: Cigarettes

2.3% past year, 0.8% past month

3.4% past year, 1.3% past month

5.7% past year, 2.4% past month

Narcotics (other than heroin)


2.7% past year, 1.0% past month


11.8% past year, 6.6% past month, 1.3% daily

28.8% past year, 18.4% past month, 4.8% daily

35.7% past year, 22.3% past month, 6.4% daily


7.9% past month, 0.2% daily, 3.8% binge

18.4% past month, 0.6% daily, 8.5% binge

29.3% past month, 1.7% daily, 14.4% binge



  1. Campus Drug Prevention: The Data
  2. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Healt
  3. Juvenile arrest rates by State, 2018
  4. Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends
  5. Medicine Abuse: What’s Happening & Why
  6. Teen Insights into Drugs, Alcohol, and Nicotine: A National Survey of Adolescent Attitudes Toward Addictive Substances
  8. CDC Overdose Data to Action Funding
  9. Drugs of Abuse, A DEA Resource Guide (2020 Edition)
  10. Marijuana Overdose Symptoms, Signs & Treatment
  11. Injury and Death – The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids
  12. The Impact of Legalization In Colorado 2019 Edition