First-of-a-kind study shows college students often start using substances during summer

However, winter is the peak time for college students to start the non-medical use of certain prescription drugs
Thursday, August 27, 2015

A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for the first time provides insight on substance use initiation patterns among the one in every five full-time college students (aged 18 to 22) using illicit or potentially harmful substances.  The study, which tracks initiation by month, shows the peak times for the initiation of substances including alcohol, marijuana, and inhalants.

For example, combined 2002 to 2013 data from SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health find that 383,000 full-time college students used marijuana for the first time in the past year – which averages out to about 1,000 new marijuana users each day.  However, in June the level peaks at about 1,500 full-time college student marijuana initiates a day.

Similarly, 450,000 underage full-time college students (aged 18 to 20) started drinking in the past year – about 1,200 a day on average throughout the year.  Underage drinking initiation peaks among full-time college students in June with an average of 1,883 underage college students starting to drink each day.

However, winter seems to be the peak season for full-time college students to start using prescription drugs, such as pain relievers and stimulants, in non-medical ways.  Approximately 251,000 full-time college students started the non-medical use of pain relievers in the past year – on average 700 initiates a day.  During December, however, this rate rises to 850 initiates a day.

Non-medical use of stimulant medication is also at its peak in November, December, and April.  Each year about 137,000 full-time college students start using prescription stimulants non-medically (400 on an average day).  During November, December, and April the average daily initiation rate climbs to above 500 (peaking at 585 in November).

Although the report is not designed to determine the cause behind the trends in initiation, the rise in the initiation of non-medical use of prescription stimulants coincides with the times of the year that many college final exams and midterm exams occur.  This timing may indicate that some full-time college students start non-medically using prescription stimulants in the belief that it might benefit their academic performance.  It should be noted that non-medical use of stimulants has not been proven to improve academic performance and can pose serious medical risks.   

“These findings show that college students are vulnerable to substance use at any time – not just when they are away at school,” said SAMHSA Acting Administrator Kana Enomoto.  “That means that parents, college counselors, faculty members, staff, mentors, and other concerned people must take every opportunity to talk with college students about the risks of substance use and where they can turn to for help.”

SAMHSA has developed “The Sound of Your Voice,” a brief video to encourage parents and other concerned adults to talk with their college-bound young adults about alcohol use, which can be found at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXOVzTpjDrA&feature=youtu.be.  There is also a companion guide about how to develop effective conversations with college-aged youth about the risks of underage drinking and alcohol-related disorders:  http://store.samhsa.gov/product/SMA15-4897.

Parents, high school and college staffs, and other organizations serving parents and teens, can download and use these free materials.  For more information about SAMHSA’s efforts to prevent underage drinking, please visit:  http://www.samhsa.gov/underage-drinking-topic.

The report also looks at initiation patterns for legal forms of substance use that still may pose a risk to the health of college students, such as tobacco and alcohol use (for students aged 21 and 22).  Peak months for cigarette initiation among full-time college students are June, September, and October.  The peak month for alcohol use among college students of legal drinking age was January.  

The report, Monthly Variation in Substance Use Initiation Among Full-Time College Students, is based on SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health report, an annual national survey of 67,500 Americans aged 12 and older.  For a copy of the full report go to:  http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_2049/ShortReport-2049.pdf.

For more information, contact the SAMHSA Press Office at 240-276-2130.


The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation. SAMHSA's mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America's communities.

Last Updated: 08/27/2015