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High School Drug Use Across America


According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 24.6 million people in the U.S. used illicit substances in the past month.

Adults aren’t the only focus when it comes to dangerous and illegal experimentation, however. In 2016, more than 14 percent of teens aged 16 to 17 used illicit drugs.

While this trend has sparked a nationwide conversation around drug use in communities and workplaces, there’s another serious consideration when understanding where (and how) drug use starts: high school. To show where substance misuse is growing among high school students, we analyzed Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System data since 2015 for a snapshot of alcohol, marijuana, and injected drug use among these teens. Read on for a detailed overview of teenage substance use across the country.

Teen Drinking Rates


More than marijuana or any other illicit substance, high school students are more likely to experiment with alcohol consumption, so it’s important to recognize just how dangerous alcohol use can be among students. In fact, people aged 12 to 20 drink 11 percent of alcohol consumed in the U.S. (over 90 percent of which is related to binge drinking), and more than 4,300 young people die every year from excessive drinking.

According to YRBSS data, the average drinking rate among high school students was 28 percent, and that number was even higher in some states. Louisiana (34 percent), Arizona (33 percent), and Montana (33 percent) had the highest rates of high school drinking in 2017. However, for Arizona and Montana, there has actually been a decline in underage alcohol use since 2015. When broken down by school district, three Florida school districts – Broward, Miami-Dade, and Duval counties – had the highest concentration of alcohol use among high school students.

While nearly 30 percent of Michigan high school students reported drinking in 2017, the state has experienced a 14.3 percent increase in teen alcohol use since 2015. Similar increases occurred in Pennsylvania and Nevada. Among states with lower teen drinking rates, we also found the most substantial positive shifts. Both Nebraska and Rhode Island experienced between a 24 and 29 percent decrease in statewide high school drinking rates.

Marijuana Use Among Teens


Drug use among teens has reached an all-time low except for marijuana. Studies suggest teens believe marijuana is safe, and fewer high school students disapprove of regular marijuana use. Use rates might be even higher in states where recreational or medical marijuana is legal. In fact, the rate of high school seniors consuming marijuana edibles doubles between states where marijuana is illegal and states where medicinal use is decriminalized.

Marijuana can impair cognitive function, including short-term memory, perception, and judgment. Among younger users, marijuana may even impact brain development including areas of the mind that control memory and critical thinking.

Across the U.S., high school marijuana use was highest in Delaware, Michigan, and Rhode Island, although school districts with the highest concentration of cannabis consumption included Chicago (25 percent), Duval County, Florida (23 percent), and Broward County, Florida (21 percent). Michigan, Missouri, and Arkansas also had the highest increases in use between 2015 and 2017, between 17 and 23 percent.

Illegal Drug Use Among Teens


Injectable illegal drugs like heroin are among the most deadly and addictive substances available today. In 2017, nearly 16,000 people died from overdoses involving heroin and over 29,000 from other synthetic opioids (including fentanyl). While the immediate, short-term effects of illegal drug use can include euphoric sensations, they also include nausea, vomiting, and impacted mental function.

Of the three states with the highest percentages of high school students injecting illegal drugs, Louisiana, Arkansas, and South Carolina, two were also responsible for the highest percentage increases between 2015 and 2017. In Arkansas, the 7.4 percent of high school students using injected illicit substances represented a nearly 81 percent increase since 2015, and in South Carolina, the 4.4 percent of high school users marked close to a 227 percent rise over the two-year span.

Chicago, Illinois, and Miami-Dade County, Florida, were the two most susceptible school districts for this trend. In Chicago, research suggests that community-based programs tend to have the best impact on reducing the number of teens affected by these substances, but mental health issues also need to be taken into account, and a better partnership with the juvenile justice system may be needed.

A Troubling Trend


Schools are supposed to be safe spaces for learning and community, but it’s getting more and more difficult for officials to keep dangerous (and sometimes deadly) substances off school grounds. When anti-drug campaigns fail and parent-teacher conferences increase, some districts resort to more extreme measures like drug-sniffing dogs to help identify students who might be bringing drugs to school alongside books and homework.

Arkansas, Nevada, and Arizona had the highest frequency of on-campus illegal drug use among high school students in 2017. In Oklahoma, the percentage of students using illegal drugs on school grounds between 2015 and 2017 rose by nearly 52 percent, and in South Carolina, that percentage increased by almost 17 percent over the same period.

School districts in Chicago had the highest concentration of on-campus illegal substance use among high school teens in 2017 at nearly 1 in 3 students. Studies suggest popular campaigns like “Just Say No” have been largely ineffective at resolving the issue and that more personalized programs are needed to see real change.

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Recognizing the Signs

Across America, nearly 2 million teens need treatment for substance abuse. While high school substance use has declined nationwide, this doesn’t mean your state or school district is experiencing the same positive shift.

Not only are teens more likely than adults to take risks with these substances but also the effect of these drugs can be even more severe for developing young minds. School districts including Chicago, Miami-Dade County, and Broward County, Florida, had among the highest percentages of teen marijuana and illegal drug use anywhere in the country.

It’s imperative that we recognize the signs of substance abuse and dependency before it’s too late. At Project Know, our mission is to help provide you with knowledge of drug addiction and treatment programs in your area, from intervention and detox to recovery and relapse prevention. If you or someone you love is battling with drug addiction, we are here to help. Visit us at to learn more.


We collected data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). Our analysis focused on students in high school from 2015 to 2017. Not all states participate in the YRBSS questionnaire and not all states are asked the same questions every year. Only the states that were asked the same questions were included in this study.

Fair Use Statement

Are your readers concerned about teenage drug and alcohol use in their schools? We encourage you to share the results of our study for any noncommercial use, including all of the graphics related to this project. In return, simply include a link back to this page so that they have access to the entirety of our results.

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