The frequency of drug abuse on college campuses is alarming. An appalling 43.5% of college freshmen reported having become heavy drinkers in their first year of college in 2004 alone. An estimated 1,700 college students die from alcohol-related activities each year. On an annual basis, 19% of college students report having had a serious altercation with an intoxicated person, 19.5% report having been the victims of unwanted sexual advancements from an intoxicated person, 8.7% reporting having been physically assaulted by an intoxicated person, and 1% report having been raped by intoxicated students. These statistics represent only some of the detrimental effects of alcohol on college campuses across the United States. Unfortunately, alcohol is just one of many substances that college students are abusing.
According to Joseph Califano, President of Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), the group’s 2007 study concluded that nearly one-fourth of all full-time college students have a substance abuse problem meeting the medical criteria for addiction. Researchers with the Office of National Drug Control Policy suggest that these drug addictions reflect the “gateway drug theory” in action. Gateway drugs consist of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. According to the theory, use of these “gateway” drugs encourages experimenters to try more dangerous drugs, both illegal and prescription. CASA’s findings that 50% of college students both binge drink and take part in using and abusing illegal and prescription drugs seem to support the theory.
In response to these findings, CASA released a statement emphasizing the urgency of the problem. Its study concluded that alcohol and drug abuse occur at higher rates on college campuses than they do among members of the general public. In response, agencies that deal with the effects of drug abuse, whether they are governmental, collegial, or social agencies, have all called for more concerted efforts on college campuses to prevent and reduce drug abuse.
Drug abuse is defined as a habit of using drugs to change one’s mood, emotional state, or state of consciousness. Prescription drug abuse is defined as the use of a prescription drug by someone other than the patient for whom it is prescribed or at a dosage that is inconsistent with the prescribed amount. It follows, then, that illegal drug abuse is the habitual use of illegal drugs to alter one’s state.
While no age, race, or gender is immune to falling into dependency on drugs and alcohol, some patterns within the realms of race and age do exist. According to a study by CASA, Caucasian students are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. When asked why students turn to drugs, CASA’s Califano replied that most do so as a means of relaxing and coping with stress.
The most commonly abused substance by far is alcohol. Almost half of all fulltime college students (approximately 5.4 million people) binge drink at least once per month. Binge drinking is generally defined as consuming four or more drinks in an hour.
In a 2007 study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 were found to have increased their use of prescription drugs since 2006. College students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Learning Center, use prescription drugs for a number of reasons. Some say these drugs help them concentrate when they are rushing to write papers or cramming for tests. Many use them as self-medications to treat their anxiety or depression. Others use such drugs to boost their performance in the athletic arena. Because they are prescribed drugs, many college students feel that prescription drugs are a safe way to stimulate their brains to work at maximum capacity.
Use of both prescription drugs and marijuana by college students has increased since the mid-1990s. In 2005, 4% of the nation’s college students admitted to smoking marijuana at least 20 days in a month’s time. The most commonly abused prescription drugs are types of opioids, central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and stimulants.
Opioids–which include such drugs as Oxycontin, Darvon, Vicodin, Dilaudid, Demerol, and Lomotil–are prescribed to treat pain. In 2005, 3.1% of students admitted to abusing painkillers. CNS drugs are used for the treatment of anxiety and sleep disorders; they include Nembutal, Valium, and Xanax. Stimulants are used to treat conditions such as narcolepsy, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obesity. Stimulant drugs include Dexedrin and Ritalin. While the drugs listed here are not the only drugs used to treat these conditions, they are the most commonly abused prescription drugs on campuses.
Although students may feel safe when taking these opioids and CNS drugs, long-term use of these agents carries a high risk of becoming physically dependent and addicted to them. Individuals who abuse stimulants are at risk of developing paranoia, dangerously high body temperatures, and irregular heartbeats.
A host of myths have sprung up surrounding the use of illegal drugs. For example, many students believe that marijuana is a virtually safe drug. In reality, marijuana can be harmful in both the short and long term. Short-term effects of marijuana include memory loss, distorted perception, trouble with thinking and problem solving, and anxiety. This drug can also cause neurological changes like those associated with cocaine, heroin, and alcohol use, and can produce an addicting reaction. Long-term marijuana use increases the person’s likelihood of developing a drug dependency (not necessarily to marijuana) and increases the chances of risky sexual activity, poor job performance, cognitive lung deficits, and lung damage. Experts say marijuana interferes with memory and attention span. Some recent studies have suggested that this drug has an association with schizophrenia as well. The clearest indicator that marijuana may be an addicting drug is the fact that some heavy users have experienced withdrawal symptoms when they stopped using the drug for a sufficient amount of time.
There is no “safe” drug to be addicted to. While some researchers have found that drug abuse rates have decreased slightly in recent years, all researchers agree that preventing drug use and helping those who have already developed an addiction is essential. According to Califano, two-thirds of U.S. school officials and administrators do not see drug abuse as either a priority or their responsibility to address, making intervention and prevention difficult. The attack on drug abuse must come from three angles–parents, school administrators, and, in the case of prescription drugs, physicians.
According to CASA, three-fourths of students who abuse alcohol and drugs in college actually began abusing them before they entered college. The statistics on the abuse of drugs between the ages of 12 and 18 could fill a few essays by themselves. To prevent this problem, parents must get involved with their children’s lives. Moreover, when 43.5% of college freshmen are becoming heavy drinkers, it becomes quite evident that it is time for school administrators across the board to intervene. Whether that means setting up peer groups to help addicts and educate students, making sure sufficient information goes to students warning them of these dangers, or increasing security to decrease on-campus incidents of drug abuse, these officials must take action. As far as prescription drugs are concerned, the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that physicians should screen for drug abuse during routine examinations. They can also note any increases in the number or frequency of requests for medication, as such behavior is suggestive of a potential problem.
No single organization, administrator, parent, physician, or student can stamp out the abuse of drugs on a grand scale, but each can make at least some impact on the problem. If all parties work together, they can help significantly reduce drug abuse on the college campus.
- Califano, J. A. (2008, June 18). Accompanying statement of Joseph A. Califano, Jr. on non-medical marijuana III: Rite of passage or Russian roulette? National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Retrieved from http://www.casacolumbia.org/articlefiles/380-Non-Medical%20Marijuana%20I.pdf
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