While teen drug use has declined, some teens today continue to experiment with substances like marijuana, cocaine, painkillers, amphetamines, inhalants and other drugs.

According to statistics, teen drug use rates are declining, with the use of illegal drugs aside from marijuana being lower than it has been in over twenty years among youth. Despite the decline in drug use, teens today may still experiment with and abuse drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons.

Article at a Glance:  

  • Teens often use drugs and alcohol to fit in or to cope with mental health issues, such as depression.  
  • Teens may use substances to get feelings of temporary happiness and pleasure.  
  • Commonly used drugs by teens are marijuana, cocaine, stimulants, and painkillers.  
  • Teens also use K2, heroin, crystal meth, MDMA, hallucinogens, DXM, and inhalants.  
  • The Recovery Village can help if your teen is in need of treatment for drug abuse.  

Why Do Teens Use Drugs?

There are different reasons why teens use drugs and alcohol. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), peer pressure is one reason for teen drug use. Teens may feel that they need to try drugs to fit in with certain social groups. Drug use can also be an act of experimentation among teenagers, who may be prone to seeking exciting experiences.

In addition, teens who struggle with mental health issues such as depression may use drugs to self-medicate and alleviate their symptoms. Drugs can temporarily relieve stress and help these individuals feel better. Some adolescents may also use drugs to cope with the distress associated with past trauma. One study found that youth with a history of experiencing potentially traumatic incidents prior to the age of 11 were more likely to use marijuanacocaine and prescription drugs. They were also more likely to use drugs in general or to experiment with multiple drugs. Experiencing violence was linked to drug use particularly strongly, according to teen drug use facts.

Aside from using drugs to cope with stress or trauma, some teens abuse drugs to achieve a high because they enjoy the feeling. Drugs temporarily produce feelings of happiness and pleasure, and teens who use drugs seek out these feelings. Finally, some adolescents may use drugs to enhance athletic or academic performance.

Common Drugs Used by Teens

There are several popular drugs that teens use, all with different effects and rates of use. Currently, the drugs most commonly used by teens are marijuana, cocaine, stimulants, painkillers and prescription drugs, spice and K2, heroin, crystal meth, MDMA, hallucinogens, DXM and inhalants.


Marijuana use in teens has declined despite laws legalizing recreational marijuana use in some states. According to statistics, less than 6% of 12th-grade students use marijuana every day. Data from the National Survey on Drug Use also shows that 0.7% of 8th-grade students and 3.4% of 10th graders use marijuana daily.

Marijuana may be relatively popular among teens because it is easy for them to obtain. Additional statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use show that 80% of 12th graders feel it would be easy for them to get marijuana, with 65% of 10th-grade students reporting the same. In recent years, the perceived risk associated with marijuana use has also decreased among teens, so they may use marijuana because they feel it is safe to do so.


Teen cocaine use is less common than marijuana use among adolescents. The National Survey on Drug Use conducted by NIDA found that only 2.3% of 12th grade students, 1.5% of 10th graders and 0.8% of 8th graders have used cocaine in the last year. Lower rates of cocaine use in teens may be a result of limited availability compared to marijuana, as just 28% of 12th-grade students feel it would be easy to obtain the drug. Additionally, over 85% of teens disapprove of experimenting with cocaine, which may deter use.

With disapproval of the drug being high, it is easy to wonder, “Why do teens use cocaine?” According to one study, teens may combine cocaine with alcohol to allow them to drink more. Cocaine may be primarily present in nightlife and party settings, but it is also easy to use at home since it can be snorted.


Stimulants are a class of drugs typically used to treat conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and they require a prescription. Abuse of Ritalin and other ADHD drugs, such as Adderall, which is the most common, may occur in teens. According to NIDA research, 4.5% of students in 12th grade have used Adderall not prescribed to them within the past year.

Adderall abuse may occur among teens because they feel it is safe to abuse prescription drugs. Additionally, experts report that stimulant drugs increase alertness and concentration, so teens may abuse them to boost academic performance, study for tests or complete lengthy assignments.

Painkillers and Prescription Drugs

Teen prescription drug abuse can involve narcotic painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin. According to NIDA, 3.4% of 12th grade students have used prescription drugs within the past year. Vicodin use within the previous year is reported by 0.6% of 8th graders, 1.1% of 10th graders and 1.7% of 12th graders. OxyContin use is slightly more common, with 0.8% of 8th graders, 2.2% of 10th graders and 2.3% of 12th graders using within the past year.

According to NIDA, teens who abuse prescription painkillers tend to do so in combination with alcohol or other drugs. In fact, 70% of teens who engage in painkiller abuse use these drugs alongside other substances, most often marijuana and alcohol.


Spice and K2 are two names for synthetic marijuana, which producers create by spraying herbs with cannabinoid chemicals. Spice drug abuse caught media attention in 2011 when 11.4% of high school seniors reported they had used this drug in the past year. According to NIDA, 1.6% of 8th graders, 2.9% of 10th graders and 3.5% of 12th graders state that they have used spice within the previous year.

Synthetic marijuana was previously legal and readily available for purchase on the Internet and in convenience stores, but in 2011, many of the chemicals contained in it became illegal. Despite this fact, producers can change chemical formulations to circumvent current laws, and teens may, therefore, have easier access to spice. However, the rapid decline in use rates shows that legislative measures have had a positive effect on synthetic marijuana use rates among teens.


Teen heroin use has decreased significantly since the 1990s, with NIDA survey results showing that just 0.2% of 8th graders, 0.3% of 10th graders and 0.4% of 12th graders have used heroin in the past year. A majority of teens today disapprove of heroin use and view the drug as dangerous.

Teens who do use heroin may begin by abusing prescription drugs. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost half of adolescents who use heroin started with prescription pain medications. Unfortunately, teens who begin abusing prescription drugs may turn to heroin because it is cheaper and easier for them to acquire.

Crystal Meth

Teen crystal meth use has declined since 1999, according to NIDA survey results. Only 0.4% of 8th graders, 0.4% of 10th graders and 0.5% of 12th graders report they have used meth in the past year. Most teens view the drug as risky, and very few report that it would be easy for them to obtain.

Despite the overall low prevalence of meth use in teens, some areas of the country, particularly western states, may see higher rates of adolescent meth use. A research project conducted in Idaho shows that some teens may use meth because they believe it makes them happy or will help with weight loss.


MDMA is a drug also known by names like ecstasy and Molly. In general, teens using ecstasy is relatively uncommon, with just 2.2% of 12th graders reporting they’ve used the drug in the past year, according to NIDA.

Ecstasy is alluring to teens as a drug that is used at parties and nightclubs. It creates a rush of happiness and makes people who use it feel emotionally connected to others. Ecstasy can also come in the form of tablets that look like candy, which can make it appealing to teens.


Hallucinogens include drugs like LSD, also known as “acid.” According to NIDA, the number of teens on acid is relatively low, with 3.2% of 12th grade students reported using LSD in the past year.

Hallucinogens also include the magic mushroom drug, which can cause users to go on “trips” during which they may lose touch with reality and be unaware of their surroundings. Teens may use hallucinogens because they find these trips to be enjoyable.


Teens drinking cough syrup has been relatively consistent but fairly low, with an annual use prevalence of 3.2% for 8th, 10th and 12th graders combined. Teens use DXM syrup because it produces a high.

According to experts, DXM is federally legal and inexpensive to obtain, and it typically does not show up on drug tests. This may make the medication appealing to teens, but it can also cause dangerous side effects, such as paranoia, hallucinations and delusions.


Inhalants contain fumes that can create a high, and they are found in common household products, such as glue, nail polish remover and gasoline. Inhalants are inexpensive and can be found around the house, making them relatively easy for teens to obtain. According to NIDA data, inhalant abuse is more common among 8th graders than 10th and 12th graders.

Teens who abuse inhalants and other drugs may develop addictions or substance use disorders. If your teen is beginning to struggle in school, display significant changes in behavior or mood, give up previously enjoyed activities, withdraw from the family or spend a significant amount of time and money using and obtaining drugs, he or she may be struggling with a substance use disorder that requires teen rehab treatment.

If your teen is in need of treatment for drug abuse, The Recovery Village has a team of caring professionals ready to provide support and answer any questions you may have about addiction treatment. Reach out to a representative today to learn more.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

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Martinak, Bridgette, et al. “Dextromethorphan in cough syrup: The poor man’s psychosis.” Psychopharmacology Bulletin, September 15, 2017. Accessed July 21, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.