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High School Drug Use Trends

In 2014, 44.1 million Americans reported using illicit drugs over the past year. One tragic result of the widespread use of drugs and alcohol is its impact on youth. In the United States alone, 7% of youth aged 12–13 took an illicit substance in the past year, while 5.6% reported drinking alcohol. Early use of drugs or alcohol has been linked to a several times greater risk of developing substance dependence, as the majority of Americans aged 18–30 admitted for substance abuse treatment initiated alcohol or drug use before the age of 18.

The use of alcohol and illicit drugs by teenagers and youth is a serious issue. With a problem this widespread, we wanted to find out where youth drinking and drug use is most prominent. So, we compared data from the United States and European nations to find out just how many high school students are engaging in binge drinking and marijuana use. Read on to learn more about patterns of youth drinking and drug use around the globe.

Marijuana and Binge Drinking Across the U.S.

First, we examined data from state agencies on high school students’ binge drinking or use of marijuana within the past month. Binge drinking is defined by the Centers for Disease Control as drinking five or more alcoholic beverages within two hours. A clear coastal pattern can be seen when we map binge drinking patterns and marijuana use by state: Along the East Coast, West Coast, and some Southwest and Midwest states, marijuana use by high school students was more frequent than binge drinking.

However, binge drinking was more widespread than marijuana use for students in a wide swath of Central and Western states extending from Montana to Texas, as well as in a smattering of Southern states such as Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, and West Virginia. In only two states, Pennsylvania and Nevada, were both alcohol and marijuana used at about equal rates.

Drug and Alcohol Use Among U.S. High School Students

Next, we took a closer look at the available information on state-by-state prevalence of past-month binge drinking among high school students, as well as past-month marijuana use. We’ve seen that marijuana use and binge drinking are each more prevalent in certain areas of the country, but just how substantial are these gaps?

In some states, the difference is especially notable: 20% of Georgia high school students reported using marijuana within the past month, compared to only 13% who acknowledged binge drinking over the same time period. Alaska showed a similar pattern, with 20% using marijuana and 13% engaging in binge drinking. A particularly wide gap was observed in New Mexico, where 17% of high school students binged on alcohol recently, while 28% used marijuana. Other states, such as Iowa, showed a much greater frequency of binge drinking: 23% of students in this state reported recently binge drinking, but only 11% had used marijuana over the past month.

Interestingly, the differences were not very large in states that have taken a more relaxed approach to marijuana policy. Past-month marijuana use in Washington state was seen to occur among 27% of students, compared to 22% for binge drinking – and binge drinking was actually slightly more common than marijuana use in Colorado (22% vs. 20%).

We also looked at lifetime cocaine use – usage of cocaine even one time – among the high school population, as well as illicit usage of prescription drugs. In contrast to recent binge drinking and use of marijuana, lifetime cocaine use was relatively uncommon, ranging from a low of 3% in Nebraska to 10% in Arizona and New Mexico. However, lifetime illicit use of prescription drugs, such as opioid painkillers and benzodiazepines, was vastly more common.

In some areas, students’ lifetime usage rates for illicit prescription drugs were comparable to their past-month binge drinking rates. In Indiana, 20% of high school students reported binge drinking in the past month, while 21% had used illicit prescription drugs over their life. And while only 14% of California students engaged in binge drinking over the past month, 17% had used prescription drugs illicitly at least once. While regional rates can vary significantly, one trend is undeniable – alcohol and drug use remains a serious issue facing America’s youth.

Top 5 States with Highest High School Drug Abuse Rates

We also ranked which states had the highest overall rates of high school student substance use in the country. Each substance we studied – alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and prescription drugs – shows a unique distribution. For past-month binge drinking, West Virginia ranked first in the country: 24.4% of students reported binge drinking in the last 30 days. The high rate of binge drinking in high school students continues into adulthood, as West Virginia also has the highest rate of adult binge drinking in the nation, according to a study conducted by the United Health Foundation. Montana placed second in the nation with 23.5% of high school students reporting past-month binge drinking;the state’s Department of Health and Human Services has recently moved to encourage increased enforcement against youth attempting to buy alcohol.

Marijuana usage rates among high school students peaked at a much greater level. Washington, D.C. accounted for the largest observed rate in the nation (32.2%), followed by 27.8% in New Mexico. New Mexico also showed the country’s highest rate of lifetime cocaine use by high school students at 10.3%, narrowly leading over Arizona’s 10.1%. Nationally, lifetime prescription drug abuse was far more common than cocaine use, peaking at 21.5% of Arkansas high school students, followed by 21.4% of Indiana students. This has been attributed to the easy availability of prescription medications from otherwise legitimate sources, allowing youth to obtain these drugs from relatives’ medicine cabinets or other places.

Top 5 States with Lowest High School Drug Abuse Rates

High rates of alcohol and drug use were not universal among high school students in the U.S. – many states showed a much lower frequency. Utah was particularly notable among these states, placing last in the country for students’ past-month binge drinking (5.9%) and marijuana use (7.9%). The state was also second-last for lifetime cocaine use (3.5%) and third-last for lifetime illicit prescription drug use (8.7%). Utah is known to have the country’s highest concentration of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with 6 in 10 Utah residents belonging to the faith. The church has expressed a particular disapproval of substance use, including alcohol and even caffeinated drinks. The state has adopted some of the most restrictive alcohol regulations, including the requirement that restaurants may only serve alcohol to those who have ordered food.

While the District of Columbia placed first in the country for past-month marijuana use by high school students, use of other substances was less frequent. D.C. was second-to-last in the nation for past-month binge drinking (12%) and in last place for lifetime prescription drug abuse (7.3%). And while Iowa was fourth in the nation for past-month binge drinking among students (23%), it was second-to-last for past-month marijuana use (11%). Regardless, it’s concerning that even in states where substance use is the most infrequent, more than 1 in 20 high school students have recently used alcohol or marijuana.

Alcohol: United States vs. Europe

What do substance use trends among American youth look like in a global context? We reviewed data from more than 50 European nations to understand how frequently youth reported drinking within the past month. Because this data counted any drinking and was not limited to binge drinking behavior, these figures were somewhat higher than statistics from American agencies. However, drinking among high school students in Europe remains surprisingly common.

Iceland showed the lowest rates of past-month youth drinking at 17%, followed by Albania’s 32% and Norway’s 35%. But across Europe, high school students’ past-month drinking frequency regularly exceeded 50%, 60%, or more. Portugal showed rates of 52%, while 67% of students in France drank within the past month. This rose to 70% in the United Kingdom and 73% in Germany, topping out at a staggering 80% in Austria. Recognizing that youth are the age group that engages in the heaviest drinking behaviors, the European Union has recently emphasized the importance of delaying the age at which youth first use alcohol and reducing the amount that they drink.

Marijuana: United States vs. Europe

We also looked at the prevalence of past-month marijuana use by high school students in European countries, which allowed a direct comparison to U.S. statistics. Nationally, 20% of American high school students used marijuana within the last month, a rate much greater than that seen in most European nations. Only two countries, Spain (20%) and France (24%), equaled or exceeded the recent usage rates of U.S. students. Elsewhere, rates of 10% or less were the norm, as seen in the United Kingdom (11%), Germany (7%), Iceland (4%), and Sweden (3%). Figures as low as 1% were seen in Moldova as well as the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

High School Student Access to Alcohol

One factor in minors’ use of substances is their ability to obtain them; however, it is not always a deciding factor. We examined data on the availability of alcohol to high school students in the U.S. and Europe, and ranked nations by the number of students who report that it’s “fairly easy” or “very easy” to acquire alcohol.

Overall, in 17 European countries, 80% or more of high school students said that obtaining alcohol was easy, largely due to laws that allow teenagers to purchase alcohol. While most students reported that it was not difficult to obtain alcohol, it is interesting to note that past-month student binge drinking rates varied widely from a low of 22% in Portugal to a high of 56% in Denmark and Austria. Compare this to the United States, where 78% of students said alcohol was easy to obtain and 21% engaged in binge drinking in the past month. This placed America above only four European nations where students considered alcohol to be less easily available. Iceland placed last out of all countries for which data were available, with 62% of high school students reporting that alcohol was easy to find, and only 13% binge drinking over the past month.

High School Student Access to Marijuana

However, when it comes to marijuana availability and usage, the trends observed are quite different. With much more restrictive laws on the possession and sale of marijuana in most jurisdictions, youth are far less likely to be able to find this substance sitting in their parents’ cabinets, and usage does generally decline with lack of access.

Unlike patterns seen in the availability of alcohol, the U.S. ranked first here: 68% of high school students said it was easy to find marijuana, and 20% had used the drug within the past month.

In the Czech Republic, 59% of students reported easy marijuana availability, followed by 49% in the Netherlands. A range of 25–45% of students who felt that the drug is easily available was the norm among most European countries. While this is lower than the availability of alcohol, these numbers demonstrate that, despite many efforts at prevention of drug use, high school students are still faced with frequent opportunities to use marijuana.

Learning More About Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Use of drugs and alcohol by high school students may often be viewed as youthful experimentation, but the results are far from harmless. Youth who repeatedly binge drink can face problems in their social life, academic career, the legal system, and their health. Even worse: over 4,300 alcohol-related deaths of underage youth occur every year in the United States. As we’ve seen, easy access and frequent use of alcohol and drugs by youth is commonplace in many countries, presenting alarming opportunities for the development of addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or dependence, there’s hope. At we can connect you to resources and treatment programs that fit your unique needs. With options including therapy, rehab, and more, you can find the program that’s right for you. Contact today at , and start taking your life back from drugs and alcohol.


Statistics on U.S. states’ levels and European countries’ national levels of alcohol use, binge drinking, marijuana use, cocaine use, and illicit prescription drug use, as well as reported levels of availability of alcohol and marijuana, were obtained from surveys and studies by state and national agencies. These included the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s 2014 National Drug Control Strategy, the California Healthy Kids Surveys 2011-2013 School Climate & Student Well-being Biennial State Results, the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey, the 2015 Substance Abuse in Minnesota report, the 2012/2013 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey, the Washington State Healthy Youth Survey 2012 Analytic Report, the 2012 District of Columbia Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, Indiana University’s 2012 “The Consumption and Consequences of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drugs in Indiana: A State Epidemiological Profile” report, the 2014 Iowa Youth Survey Trend Report, the 2013 Pennsylvania Youth Survey, the 2014 Arizona Youth Survey, the 2013 Massachusetts Youth Health Survey, the 2014 Missouri Student Survey, the 2013 Ohio Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the 2013 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of the Connecticut School Health Survey, the 2011 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, and the 2007 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs.

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