Broadly defined, a “drug” is any nonfood substance that in some way alters the physical or psychological processes of the body. As to the legality and availability of drugs, there is enormous variation in the regulation of the manufacture and sale of these substances. Some drugs, such as aspirin and caffeine, are readily available and may be legally purchased by anyone. In addition, some readily available household items, such as glue, paint, and aerosol spray cans, emit fumes that have intoxicating effects when inhaled and, therefore, may be considered to fit the definition of drugs. Some drugs, such as alcohol and nicotine, are readily available but may only be legally purchased or used by adults. Some drugs, such as codeine and Valium, are strictly regulated by the government and may be administered only with the authorization of a physician. Finally, some drugs, such as heroin and LSD, are considered to have no legitimate uses and are completely proscribed by law. With respect to marijuana, there is an ongoing debate as to whether it may be legally used. Although a few states (e.g., California) have enacted laws that allow marijuana to be prescribed by physicians, the federal government does not recognize marijuana as having any legitimate medical uses and considers the cultivation, possession, trafficking, and use of marijuana to be criminal acts.
In general, the term “drug offenses” refers to any offense involving the illegal use of a drug. To provide a few examples, the possession or consumption of alcohol by anyone younger than the age of 21 could be considered a drug offense. The possession or use of a controlled substance such as Ritalin, Librium, Xanax, or Demerol without a doctor’s prescription may be considered a drug offense. Likewise, the manufacture, distribution, possession, or use of any prohibited drug such as heroin, PCP, or LSD could be considered a drug offense. In addition, the possession or use of an antibiotic (a drug designed to eliminate harmful bacteria) such as penicillin or amoxicillin without a doctor’s prescription could be considered a drug offense, but criminal justice agencies typically focus their efforts on controlling the illegal use of psychoactive drugs (drugs that alter a person’s consciousness) such as marijuana.
The majority of controlled and illegal psychoactive substances such as alcohol, marijuana, and heroin produce pleasurable effects in the user by affecting neuro-transmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. The effects of such substances vary widely. For example, whereas heroin generates an intensely pleasurable rush accompanied by hours of drowsiness, methamphetamine produces high levels of energy and an increase in attention capacity.
Although government agencies at all levels–federal, state, and local–have long utilized a number of tactics designed to eliminate adolescent drug use and keep illegal drugs out of U.S. schools, the reality is that a variety of illegal drugs are readily available in high schools throughout the nation and that a substantial portion of school-age youths use illegal drugs. Analyses of data from the 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that more than one-third of high school students (38.1%) had used marijuana at least once in their lifetime when they responded to the survey, more than one in 10 high school students (12.4%) had sniffed glue or inhaled some other substance to get high at least once in their lifetime, almost one in 10 high school students (7.6%) had used cocaine at least once in their lifetime, and one-fourth of high school students (25%) had been offered, sold, or given a drug while at school. Similarly, analyses of data from the 2007 Monitoring the Future survey show that more than one-third of all 12th graders responding to this survey (36%) had used some illicit substance. In fact, analyses of Monitoring the Future data indicate that illicit drug use is higher among 12th graders than any other demographic group, including college students and young adults. Among the variety of illicit substances available in U.S. schools, marijuana is by far the most commonly used. Research suggests that school-age youths are more likely to use marijuana than any other illicit drug, including cocaine, hallucinogens, or methamphetamines.
The good news is that research also shows that although the use of illicit substances remains a problem among secondary school students, illicit teen drug use has significantly decreased in the past decade. Whereas a substantial increase in illicit drug use among teenagers occurred during the early to mid-1990s, by the end of the 1990s the rates of illicit drug use had begun to decline. For example, between 1992 and 1997 the rates of marijuana use among high school students nearly doubled, but since then marijuana use among teens has decreased, as has the use of numerous other illicit drugs such as cocaine and LSD. Although the use of ecstasy increased among high school students during the late 1990s and very early 2000s, since 2002 there has been a reduction in the use of this drug by such students.
Although teen drug use and the availability of drugs at school may have decreased, drugs continue to pose a threat in the schools. As noted earlier, research conducted by federal agencies indicates that roughly one out of every four students in the United States has either bought, been given, or been offered drugs while at school. The widespread availability and use of drugs by high school students negatively affect the school environment and the learning process. While under the influence of psychoactive substances such as alcohol, amphetamines, marijuana, and ecstasy, students may be unable to concentrate on their studies and may disrupt teachers and other students. Additionally, early experimentation with alcohol and illicit drugs increases the likelihood that a youth will drop out of school and may lead to long-term problems with substance abuse and addiction.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008, April 11). Trends in the prevalence of marijuana, cocaine, and other illegal drug use. National YRBS: 1991– 2007. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Adolescent and School Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
- Dinkes, R., Cataldi, E. F., Lin-Kelly, W., & Snyder, T. D. (2007, December). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2007 (NCES 2008-021/NCJ 219553). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, & U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
- Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2008). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2007: Volume I. Secondary school students (NIH Publication No. 08-6418A). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2002). Methamphetamine abuse and addiction. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2005). Heroin and drug addiction. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse.