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What Is the Number One Drug Used by Teens?

Substance abuse comes with many mental and physical health risks, especially for young people because they are still growing and developing. It is reasonable for parents and guardians to worry that their loved one could be exposed to common drugs or become involved in drug use.

Informing yourself about commonly used drugs can be a valuable exercise. With knowledge about what is available to teenagers, you will be better equipped to talk to young people about drug use. To start with, you may be wondering "what is the number one drug used by teens?" or whether there are treatment programs specifically for teen drug abuse. This blog post answers these questions.

Teen Drug Abuse

There are many popular drugs that teens use, all with varying effects and risks. There are also many different reasons for teens using drugs, most of which can be addressed through addiction treatment programs.

By the time they’re in 12th grade, 46.6% of teens have tried illicit drugs. This figure shows that drug use is far from rare. Looking out for signs of teenage drug abuse may help an adult to spot substance use before it develops into an addiction. In some cases, it may mean the difference between life and death.

Warning Signs of Teen Drug Abuse

Although each drug comes with its own physical and mental effects, there are some general signs common to all drug use.

A dramatic decline in academic performance usually indicates that something is out of place. If this is combined with secrecy and dishonesty, appetite changes, and a loss of motivation, a teen may be using drugs.

Irresponsible and violent behavior, irritability, and memory problems are other signs. A teen may have a lack of self-care, and lose interest in the hobbies or activities they enjoyed. Warning signs also include losing interest in friends, or frequently changing friends – perhaps to ones that are also involved in substance abuse.

What Are the Most Common Drugs Used by Teens?

The most common substance abuse does not only involve illicit substances. Sometimes it includes substances used openly and commonly at home – such as alcohol or prescription painkillers, or even household products.


While the legal drinking age is 21 in the United States, alcohol availability within the home and its common societal acceptance compared to other illegal drugs make it the most common substance to be abused by young adults or teens.

Around 36% of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders used alcohol in 2021, while 712,000 young people aged 12–17 had an alcohol use disorder in 2020. This popular drug used by teens has significant negative physical and mental effects. A decreased ability to pay attention, stunted brain development, and memory troubles come with the many other devastating effects of alcohol. Engaging in early drinking is also linked to a higher chance of developing alcohol use disorder as an adult.

But while alcohol is the number one drug used by teens, it is certainly not the only one. It is often used alongside other drug abuse.


Even though recreational marijuana use has been legalized in some areas, it is usually only intended for adults. After alcohol, marijuana use exceeds all other substance abuse among young people.

In 2019, 37% of US high school students reported lifetime use of marijuana, and 22% reported use in the past 30 days. In 2021, marijuana use was reported among 17.9% of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.

According to the CDC, marijuana use among teens can lead to problems in memory and learning, attention and coordination, thinking, and problem-solving. It has also been linked to mental illness, including social anxiety or depression. Temporary psychosis – involving hallucinations, paranoia, and not knowing what is real – may develop among regular users, while they are also more likely to develop long-lasting mental disorders.

Spice and K2

These are names for what is called synthetic marijuana. Cannabinoid chemicals, initially created in laboratories to study the effects of marijuana, are sprayed onto plant matter. Many of these chemicals are now illegal, and the effects of Spice or K2 can be more intense than natural marijuana. Synthetic cannabinoids come with side effects such as a racing heart, seizures, psychosis, chest pain, shortness of breath, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, and hallucinations.

Synthetic cannabinoids can be used by smoking the dried plant material or brewing it as tea. Some products come in liquid form and are vaporized in e-cigarettes. By 2019, about 3% of teens in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades reported that they used Spice in the past year.


Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant drug, made from the leaves of the coca plant. It typically comes in powdered form. It can be snorted or smoked, or dissolved in water. Cocaine is often mixed with other substances when it is sold on the street as a means for street dealers to increase their profits. This may include cornstarch, talcum powder or flour, or illicit substances such as fentanyl or amphetamine.

Cocaine is also processed to make a crystal rock, referred to as 'crack'. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1.2% of 12th graders reported using cocaine in 2020. Cocaine use comes with the risk of heart attack, seizure, and stroke.


In 2017, 14,000 teens between 12 and 17 used heroin. A highly addictive drug, heroin can look like a white or brown powder, or in some cases sticky black tar. It typically comes in powdered form and is often mixed with other drugs. Heroin is a semisynthetic, illegal opioid drug.

It is produced in clandestine laboratories by the acetylation of a natural substance called morphine obtained from poppy plant seed pods. It can be smoked, snorted, or injected. It comes with a high risk of overdose and a risk of infections from sharing needles when injecting.

Prescription Medications

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 4.4% of high school seniors reported misusing any prescription drug in the past 12 months in 2021. Prescription drug misuse is considered the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States – above that of cocaine, heroin, or meth – and it is affecting teens.

Two prescription drugs commonly abused by teens are Adderall and Ritalin, otherwise known as study drugs, used to boost academic performance. As stimulant drugs, they help young adults focus and stay awake for longer hours while studying by raising physiological activity and stimulating the nervous system.

These stimulant-based drugs help young people focus and stay awake for longer study times. Stimulant drugs raise physiological activity and stimulate the nervous system, and have a profound effect on the body, raising blood pressure, disrupting sleep, and killing appetite.

Prescription medications are usually readily available within the home. Prescription drugs that may be initially prescribed for adults can be accessed in medicine cabinets, or stolen from family members. Apart from stimulants, prescription painkillers are also commonly abused. Abusing opioid painkillers such as Tramadol, Vicodin, and Oxycodone is dangerous as they could pave the way to other opioid use such as heroin. They can also lead to respiratory distress and death.

Crystal Meth

Around 21,000 teens aged 12–17 used methamphetamines in 2020. A derivative of amphetamine, methamphetamine (meth) is a powerful stimulant that can be smoked, snorted, or dissolved in water or alcohol. As a very addictive chemical, meth directly affects the body's central nervous system, and its prolonged use can lead to heart damage, memory loss, and psychotic behavior, among many other problems.


Results of the 2020 National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey shows 3.7% of teens use over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine containing dextromethorphan (DXM).

Dextromethorphan (DXM) is found in more than 120 over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications as a cough suppressor. It exists either alone or in combination with other drugs such as analgesics, antihistamines, decongestants, and expectorants.

As a federally legal drug that is inexpensively obtained, and that does not usually show up on drug tests, teens use DXM syrup because it produces a high. DXM can cause paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions.


In 2021, an estimated 0.6% of 8th graders, 0.7% of 10th graders, and 1.1% of 12th graders reported using MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) in the past 12 months. As a potent central nervous system stimulant, it is referred to as ecstasy in tablet form, while the crystallized powder form is known as molly or mandy.

MDMA is often the key ingredient in party drugs and is used recreationally at raves or dance clubs, as it increases pleasure and euphoria, and gives energy. But its use is dangerous, as it can lead to heart and liver failure, among many other dangers.


Not all drugs are found on the streets. Household products – such as glue, whipped cream, or nail polish remover contain fumes that can create a high. More than half a million people in the United States aged between 12 and 17 used inhalants in 2015. Teenagers abuse inhalants because they provide a very quick high, but there is no safe way of doing so. Every time a teen abuses an inhalant, they risk death. Inhalants can also cause damage to the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and brain.


Also referred to as psychedelics, hallucinogens include LSD, magic mushrooms, DMT, PCP, and salvia. In 2021 4.1% of 12th graders reported using any hallucinogen in the past 12 months.

Why Do Teens Abuse Drugs?

While it is useful to have an answer to "what is the number one drug used by teens?", it's also helpful to understand why teen drug use occurs. This may be key to noticing whether a child is using drugs. The teenage years come with a range of pressures, including dramatic physical and emotional development, peer pressure, and increased academic pressure. Teens abuse drugs for many reasons. Among these is the fact that day-to-day life can feel completely overwhelming.

Risk Factors Leading to Substance Abuse

The likelihood of teen drug abuse increases with poor supervision and conflict in the family. A family history of any substance abuse, including alcohol abuse, makes a child more susceptible to developing a substance use disorder or abusing drugs. A history of sexual, physical, or verbal abuse can also lead to substance abuse, while a family history of mental health issues also plays a role.

A teen who suffers from mental illness is at greater risk of abusing drugs. An early age of experimenting with drugs or drinking alcohol is another risk factor for developing addiction later on in life.

Other Reasons Why Teens Abuse Drugs

Everyday pressures such as difficult living situations or troubled relationships with family members, as well as hormone surges, can play a role in teens' decisions to use drugs, particularly prescription pain medications.

Teenagers who have been exposed to trauma are much more likely to abuse alcohol and narcotics. Aside from using drugs to self-medicate, and cope with stress or trauma, some teens abuse drugs simply because they want to know what it feels like to be drunk or high. The idea of illicit drugs seems exciting or thrilling. Another common reason for teen substance abuse is the desire to fit in. It can be very difficult to turn down drugs when a teen's friends use them, as they typically want to feel accepted.

Some teens abuse drugs to enhance their academic or athletic performance. Many adolescents are exposed to alcohol or marijuana and prescription drugs in their homes or see them used by their parents, and may see these drugs as a rite of passage.

Help for Teen Drug Abuse

It is never too early to do something if you believe your child is drinking alcohol or abusing drugs. Luckily, there is help available for teen substance abuse, and addiction treatment options are available specifically for youth, such as our program here at Rivers Bend.

Our substance addiction treatment program can help address the underlying causes of a teen's drug or alcohol abuse, and any co-occurring mental illness. Individual and group therapies also provide the skills to respond to triggers for substance use in a healthy way. Family therapy is offered through our addiction treatment program, allowing members to journey with their teen toward recovery

We know that education is important for young people. That is why Rivers Bend provides an academic component so that no educational compromises are needed for your teen to receive the help they need. We are here to help your teen to grow academically and to overcome substance abuse.

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