Drug Use in College
An unusual looking international number was flashing on my cell, and I though someone dialed me by accident. But when I answered, I heard the unmistakably anguished voice of a British father whose college aged daughter had been hospitalized for a cocaine overdose in New York City. He was at Heathrow, catching the next flight to JFK, and wanted me to meet him at her apartment downtown that evening to set up random drug testing for her and her roommates for the rest of the year.
In a way, he was actually quite lucky. She was a freshman, in her first month of school, and he was able to clearly identify the problem and address it aggressively with ongoing testing. Most parents who have a hunch that their kids might be using drugs at college don’t get a definitive signal, and the kids themselves don’t always get the scare of an overdose to put the fear of drugs in their soul. But, just because these kids don’t end up in the ER doesn’t mean that their casual drug use isn’t just as insidious.
Statistically, half of college kids use drugs (not including alcohol), and 20% are seriously abusing them. It’s important to take a look at the warning signs that a college student may be using the most common of the illicit drugs, since some of the signs may be easily overlooked or mistaken for the simple symptoms of a young adult’s college lifestyle.
Most commonly abused drugs on campus
Prescription stimulants: ADD or ADHD drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are being purchased illegally by students and used as a study-aid for tests, to improve focus, and to enjoy the accompanying dopamine rush that causes feelings of euphoria. Because these amphetamines are legally available by prescription, students see them as less harmful than street drugs; but be warned: these are Schedule II substances, just like cocaine and crystal meth. In a previous era, we just called them “speed”, and the modern version – most commonly Adderall or its generic substitute – is really no different, metabolically speaking. It’s an amphetamine, and it should only be used under the strict care of a physician.
Prescription opiates (“painkillers”): Every time you turn on the news, there’s another tragedy involving prescription painkillers like Oxycodone or Hydrocodone. Known more popularly by their common brand names like Vicodan or Percoset, these drugs are wreaking havoc on people of all incomes, ethnicities, and ages. It often starts with a valid prescription for pain, filled innocently after a dental problem or a knee injury, but the rush and general good feelings associated with taking these pills proves to be too much to resist. After the pain is gone and the prescription runs out, getting more of it from a drug dealer is expensive, sometimes as much as $25 or more per pill. So, millions of people are turning to Heroin for a similar opiate-driven high, because it is far cheaper (sometimes $5), and just as dangerous.
Cocaine: Not as popular as marijuana, cocaine still makes appearances on campuses across the country. It is highly addictive, it can make the heart race, it shoots up the blood pressure, and is frequently the culprit in fatal overdoses. What makes cocaine even more serious of a threat on campus is that 80% of college students drink alcohol; when cocaine is mixed with alcohol, as it is usually is, a viciously toxic chemical called Cocaethylene is formed in the liver. Cocaethylene can cause immediate, sudden death.
Ecstasy or Molly: Otherwise known as MDMA, Molly is a wildly popular party drug sensationalized everywhere from rap music to sitcoms. The pill produces feelings of pleasure, emotional warmth, and increased energy. Despite its benign reputation, it’s not all pretty: the drug can lead to prolonged panic attacks, bouts of depression, and severe hangovers. Some students have died from purchasing ecstasy that was laced with other chemicals.
Marijuana: Controversy swirls as many states have legalized weed for medicinal use and even some for recreational purposes. This doesn’t mean the drug can’t be harmful or addictive. About half of college students admit to using marijuana in the last year. The biggest concern among most parents is the general association between marijuana use and a decline in enthusiasm. It’s not uncommon for college kids to become daily smokers, often leading to lethargy, lack of motivation, and decreasing grades. Young brains are especially susceptible to the impact of frequent marijuana usage, and lungs are just as impacted by the smoke of marijuana as they are by the smoke of tobacco.
Each of these drugs comes along with a list of telltale signs of abuse, but because you may not have contact with your college student every day, it can be harder to pinpoint the behaviors which indicate drug use or even addiction. Nevertheless, be alert to some of the dead giveaways, such as:
- Drastic changes in weight
- Withdrawal from friends and activities
- Excessive sleeping
While some of these behaviors can be chalked up to the natural changes of young adulthood and staying up all night studying, it’s important to address these signals in an attempt to rule out drugs as the cause. If the above are combined with some of these other warning signs, you should strongly consider a program of random testing and/or treatment:
- Violent outbursts
- Skipping class
- Decreased focus
- Lower grades
- Traffic accidents
As a parent, what can you do to prevent college drug use?
For an entire year, I visited the British college student who nearly died of a cocaine overdose. I would show up at her apartment randomly, once per week, to drug test her (and her roommates). I administered monthly hair follicle tests and weekly 12 panel urine tests. She stayed clean, maintained her grades, and found other ways to party. It was a happy ending to a harrowing start to her college experience.
Other parents arrange for Health Street to contact their kids randomly throughout the school year. We notify them to come to one of our clinics throughout the United States, where we administer random drug testing on or near college campuses and report the results to their parents. Often this requires the parents to have a sit-down, heart-to-heart talk with their college kid, and set the parameters for what will happen if they miss, refuse, or fail a drug test. Setting the expectations up-front is critical. Following through with the testing and possible consequences is even more important. Though we’d like to think our kids are instantly ready for the challenges that the freedom of college and young adulthood bring, it helps to draw some boundaries, and no boundary is more important than one that tries to stop drug use before it becomes a habit, an addiction, or a life-shortening tragedy for your family.