A very common question among parents that have struggling teenagers is what drugs are most frequently abused by adolescents? Drug abuse among adolescents is a growing problem in the United States. Not only are teens consuming illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, but they are also using and abusing prescription medications like Hydrocodone, Vicodin, Oxycontin, Ritalin, and Adderall. Alcohol use and abuse continue to be the number one addiction problem among teens.
Alcohol use and abuse
Consuming alcohol is the most common method of substance abuse among teens. A 2021 study found that 26% of 8th-grade students and 61% of 12th-grade students admitted using alcohol. Additionally, 33% of 12th-grade students reported they had engaged in binge drinking. Binge drinking was defined as consuming five or more drinks in a short time.
Not only are kids using alcohol, but it is killing them. Among 12-20-year-olds, an alcohol-related cause of death is more likely. The top three causes of death are homicide, suicide, or other unintentional injuries (i.e., vehicle accidents, falls, overdose).
Children whose parents drink, even socially, are 50% more likely to use alcohol before the age of 18.
Alcohol can have many detrimental effects on the developing adolescent brain. The frontal lobe develops between the ages of 12 and 20. GABA, an essential amino acid, develops here and helps teens develop decision-making and problem-solving skills, impulse control, and memory and verbal skills. As alcohol travels through the body, the GABA levels drop. This can lead to cognitive problems, memory issues, and an increase in risky or dangerous behaviors.
Marijuana is undoubtedly the most commonly used illicit drug among teens. As marijuana has been legalized and accepted for medicinal purposes, the number of teens using marijuana has increased. A 2021 study found that 44% of teens ages 12-17 admit to trying pot. Of those, 35% admit to using pot this year, with 63% stating that they smoked pot through a vaping device. Alarmingly, 82% of 12th-grade students admitted they are more likely to try pot than cigarettes.
Marijuana has often been thought of as a safe drug, but that is not true. Teen Marijuana addiction can occur, and the side effects can be devastating. Regular marijuana use not only leads to respiratory infections and depression, but it can lower adolescent IQ rates and logical thinking skills. The chemical THC is released by smoking marijuana. This chemical binds to neurons in the brain and causes physical and mental impairment. Some of the side effects are irreversible.
Prescription Drugs (Hydrocodone, Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet, Ritalin, Adderall, Xanax)
More prescription drugs are being misused than ever. Opioid misuse has increased 500% since 1999, and one out of every seven high school teens admitted taking a medication that was not prescribed to them. Teens are getting these drugs by purchasing from peers or by stealing from the homes of friends and family members.
Opioids such as hydrocodone, Vicodin, and oxycontin are prescribed to many adults for chronic pain. Teens use these drugs for the calming, euphoric feeling they create. Side effects of these drugs include nausea, constipation, respiratory problems, decreased cognitive function, physical impairment, coma, and death. As this is the largest drug class prescribed by doctors, adults need to find ways to secure these medications and get them out of the hands of teens.
Stimulants, ADHD medications & Inhalants
Stimulants are prescribed for narcolepsy, depression, ADD, and ADHD. Stimulants work by speeding up messages between the brain and the body. These medications make the user feel more alert, awake, and energetic. Overuse of these drugs can cause unusually high body temperatures, which damage brain cells. Other side effects are paranoia, hallucinations, heart palpitations, seizures, cardiac arrest, and death. Ritalin and Adderall, two medications commonly prescribed for adolescents, fall into this class of drugs. Teens report using these medications, even if they were prescribed to someone else. Sharing and selling these medications is quite commonplace in high schools.
Cocaine and Amphetamines
Cocaine and amphetamines also fall into the class of stimulants. These illegal drugs create a quick, intense high that only lasts 10-60 minutes. This makes the user repeat the process to maintain that high. This quickly leads to addiction. Studies have proven that addiction to cocaine can occur after the first time using it. Unfortunately, side effects of cocaine use often lead to a quick and sudden death through convulsions or heart failure.
Cocaine and crack cocaine are both made from the coca plant leaves grown in South America. The drugs both create the same intense high and have the same risks, but they are ingested differently.
Pure cocaine is the most expensive form of the drug. This white powder is often snorted and rubbed on the gums and tongue, diluted with water and injected, or swallowed. Some dealers add talc or cornstarch to the drug to increase their profits.
Crack cocaine is created by mixing powdered cocaine with baking soda. This creates twice as much drug as pure powdered cocaine. This mixture is then boiled and cooled until a rock-hard substance appears, then cracked into several smaller pieces. Crack is usually smoked in a pipe or a bong.
Another deadly drug is heroin. Wildly popular in the 1970s and 1980s, heroin use had dropped off but is now seeing a comeback. Heroin comes from the opium poppy. This is the same drug family as the prescription medication morphine. When making heroin, the poppy pollen is cooked into a tar-like substance that is smoked or injected. The resulting drug is extremely fast-acting, highly addictive, and extremely deadly. Continued use of heroin leads to brain damage, respiratory failure, and death.
How Can You Protect Youth From Drugs?
The number one preventative for teen drug addiction is education, and if things get worse seek help from a professional teen drug treatment center. Adolescents need to be taught about the risks of bodily harm and addiction to these substances. Parents need to share their own experiences with medications and drugs honestly.
Involvement in sports, clubs and family activities is another proven prevention method. Focus on using a sport or exercise as a way to cope with stress and make difficult decisions. Engage the whole family in a wellness plan of healthy eating and activity.
Set the right example. 50% of teen addicts have a parent or family member who uses drugs or alcohol. Teens will copy your behavior, especially if they think it is not harmful. Don’t overuse prescription medications, discard extras that you no longer need, and keep medications locked away from teens.