Synthetic Drugs, Marijuana, and Alcohol: Young Adults Are Struggling

Though the rates of use and abuse of different substances fluctuate from year to year and vary from region to region, the data is in and it is clear: Young people in high school, in college, and just starting out in life are struggling with misinformation and misuse of a range of different illicit substances.

US News & World Report says that in 2014 there were about 45,000 arrests on college campuses alone for incidents related to drugs and alcohol. A quarter-million disciplinary actions on college campuses that were related to substance possession, use, and abuse occurred that year as well.

The report they cited found that:

  • Arrests for drug-related crimes were 2.3 times higher than the median state average of 1.08 per 1,000 students on college campuses in Wyoming, Montana, Delaware, West Virginia, and South Dakota.
  • Alcohol-related arrests jumped more than 44 percent in New York between 2013 and 2014.
  • In Nevada, alcohol-related arrests rose almost 41 percent between 2013 and 2014.
  • West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota were among the top 10 states for both drug arrests and arrests related to alcohol.

Both on campus and off, young adults are struggling with drug and alcohol use. Because these years are a critical part of the foundation for a lifetime in adulthood, it is important to recognize that these issues are not a “rite of passage” but dangerous and potentially deadly behaviors that could alter the course of their lives.


Marijuana has been an ongoing topic of discussion in the past year due to the legalization of its use for recreational as well as medicinal purposes in different states across the country. It is an issue that has impacted young people, even though they are under the legal age of use for any purpose. Many high school kids report a shift in perspective when it comes to marijuana; many no longer believe it to be a potentially addictive or harmful substance. This perception may increase the rates of use in this age group, especially as access to the drug increases through legal means.

One study, published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, found that marijuana use during the first year of college can have negative effects on academic progress. The more often that students used marijuana, the more likely they were to:

  • Skip classes
  • Get lower grades
  • Graduate later

Dr. Amelia Arria is an Associate Professor of Behavioral and Community Health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and lead researcher on the study. She said: “Alcohol and other drug use are also related to skipping class, but when we adjusted for other substance use we still found a relationship between marijuana and skipping class. They may not be as motivated to focus and excel in their classes because they are more focused on short-term rewards of drug use, rather than the long-term rewards of getting good grades, and all the work that involves. They may not be taking advantage of all that college has to offer.”

Synthetic Drugs

Called K2 or Spice, synthetic drugs are commonly used among teens and young adults of high school and college age due in part to the fact that many versions of these drugs are technically legal in some areas. Sold in truck stops, online, and head shops, many kids find that these drugs are easier to get than more strictly regulated substances, and they may experiment with them freely, believing them to be safer than illegal drugs.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. The rate of ER visits associated with the use of synthetic drugs has shot up in the past two years, and it is often young people who are struggling with the acute effects of these substances.

Though lawmakers work hard to keep up with the ever-changing chemical compounds that make up the active ingredients in these substances, the drug makers are often one step ahead. Thus, every new batch is different from the last with a host of different effects. Kids who try the drug once may experience only a brief high but the next time may end up in the hospital. It’s a game of Russian roulette that many young people do not realize they are playing.

Parents and Caregivers Make a Difference

Too often, parents and caregivers believe that what they have to say about drugs and alcohol will go in one ear and out the other with their kids, but the opposite is true. Even if your children do not seem to be paying attention when you broach the topic, keep bringing it up. They hear you, and they often revert back to your guidance when making choices about use of drugs and alcohol.

Says Dr. Arria: “[Parents/Caregivers] tend to breathe a sigh of relief when they send their kids off to college, but the hard work is just beginning in a certain sense. Mental health problems and substance use can peak between 18 and 25, so parents still need to be vigilant during those years, and notice when things are different with their teen, and getting worse.

“Parents invest a lot to send their kids to college. While college is a time to develop social relationships, they should talk to their teens about making the educational aspects of college a priority, and how using substances can impair their academic success.”

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