Recreational drugs have always been a problem in one form or another. Today, youths face threats from drugs that differ from anything society has seen before. Adolescents are especially vulnerable because many drugs can impact their mental and physical development.

Recreational Drugs Affecting Our Youth

Of course, any illicit drug use is always a concern in young people. But today, there are more types of drugs, some of which are surprisingly accessible, that are impacting the younger generation. Part of the problem might be that parents don’t realize the potential for their children to be exposed. The statistics about the types of drugs kids aged eight years and older have tried is enlightening.

Most Common Recreational Drugs Affecting our Youth

Some drugs are more popular among youths than others. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) 2017 study of 43,700 students in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades shows some shifts in the type and frequency of drugs being used by teens. The following includes both illicit (illegal) and prescription drugs from the most popular to the least among 12th graders.

  • Marijuana/Hashish – 37.1%
  • Adderall – 5.5%
  • Tranquilizers – 4.7%
  • Opioids other than Heroin – 4.2%
  • Synthetic Cannabinoids – 3.7%
  • LSD – 3.3%
  • Cough/Cold Medicine – 3.2%
  • Sedatives – 2.9%
  • Cocaine – 2.7%
  • MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly) – 2.6%
  • Inhalants – 1.5%
  • Ritalin – 1.3%
  • Heroin – .4%

Although alcohol is a problem among youths, it is not considered an illicit drug. The study does look in-depth at the impact drinking has on the physical and mental well-being of teens and on their ability to learn. Although alcohol is legal for adults to buy and drink, it is not legal for the children who engage in drinking.

The Good News

Good News

In the past, similar studies showed a steady increase in the use of drugs among teens. The good news is that teens’ use of illicit drugs is down in 2018 except for marijuana and inhalants. Marijuana use is about the same, which is good news too. Considering the legalization of the drug in many states and its easy access, staying level is a lot better than an increase.

At a time when opioid use is rampant throughout the country, the decrease in teens using these drugs is even better news. However, vaping might be considered the new addictive behavior of the decade. The use of vaping devices has become more popular than both pain reliever drugs and traditional cigarettes.

What Is Vaping and Why Does It Appeal to Teens?

Most people have heard of electronic cigarettes, which give smokers safer access to nicotine. These and other devices are used to turn a nicotine mixture into a vapor. Some smokers use them to gradually reduce their nicotine use to help them quit. Others prefer vaping to smoking cigarettes, which contain lots of harmful chemicals in addition to the nicotine.

One of the initial concerns about vaping was that the flavors would appeal to teens. The problem with vaping is that the vaping devices contain everything from flavoring to nicotine or marijuana. Even more concerning is that many teens don’t know what’s in the vapes they use. Some read the labels, but these aren’t always consistent or accurate. That isn’t to say that all teens aren’t aware of what is in their vape devices. During the survey by the NIH, 27.8% of high school seniors admitted to vaping within the past year. More than half of those surveyed believed they just had flavoring in their device. Another 32.8% said they had nicotine while 11.1% believed there was marijuana or hash oil in the device. One in ten 12th graders admits they use nicotine. One in twenty admits to using the vape device to use marijuana.

Why is marijuana so popular among teens? One reason is the ease with which it can be obtained. About 80% of 12th graders believe it is ‘fairly easy’ to get marijuana. In comparison, 27.3% say the same thing about cocaine.


Many people blame the legalization of marijuana in some states with making it one of the most popular recreational drugs among teens. Recreational marijuana is now legal in nine states and in Washington DC. Thirty states have made medical marijuana legal. Many people believe this has made it easier for teens to obtain it. So, how do you measure the impact on youth who are too young to legally use the drug?

One way is to compare marijuana-related emergency room and urgent care visits before and after the drug became legal. In Colorado, a children’s hospital found that in the ten-year period after the legalization of marijuana, visits increased significantly. There has also been an increase in comorbid psychiatric disorders and drug use in general among adolescents in these states.

Most Popular Recreational Drugs in Adults

Some drugs are also more popular among adults than others. Adults tend to choose the drugs they use based on their effect more than how easily they can access them. The top ten drugs used by adults include:

  1. Alcohol – The fact that alcohol is not only easily obtainable but also used socially makes it a favorite choice for many people. Alcohol is considered a depressant but its effect depends on the quantity consumed and the individual drinking it.
  2. Tobacco – Tobacco is considered a stimulant. More than thirty percent of all adults use tobacco in some form in spite of warnings that it causes cancer. Tobacco contains nicotine, an addictive mood-altering drug that alters the mood. People often require professional help in overcoming addiction to all kinds of drugs; even those that are legal.
  3. Marijuana – The same illicit drug that is the first choice of teens and adolescents is the most popular one among adults. Marijuana is considered a depressant which reduces stress and anxiety. It is also used medicinally to treat pain.
  4. Hydrocodone – Vicodin is an opioid, or narcotic, used to treat severe pain. It is sought as a recreational drug for its ability to cause a feeling of euphoria.
  5. Adderall – Adderall is an amphetamine, or stimulant. As a prescription drug, it is used to treat ADHD. In adults, it produces euphoric effects. Adderall is prescribed to many children but it is also one of the most abused drugs among adults.
  6. CocaineThis highly addictive stimulant has decreased in use over the past several years. Most people try it while they are teens. Long-term use can cause heart disease while any degree of use changes the structure of the brain.
  7. Oxycodone – Also called OxyContin or Hillbilly heroin, this drug is an opioid. Like other drugs in this class, it is used legally for pain relief and it is highly addictive. If you stop using oxycodone, it is important to do so in a professional facility. The drug can cause severe withdrawal symptoms.
  8. Alprazolam – Commonly known as Xanax, this drug is categorized as a tranquilizer. It is used as a prescription to treat anxiety disorders. It acts quickly to create a sense of euphoria. In addition to being highly addictive, Xanax also causes a lot of overdoses and deaths.
  9. MDMA – Ecstasy, or Molly, is a stimulant with hallucinogenic properties that is used exclusively as a recreational drug. The drug is also popular among teens and it has a long-lasting impact on serotonin production. People who use the drug are more impulsive, sometimes behaving in ways they normally wouldn’t. The drug is a synthetic that causes an enhanced feeling of the user’s senses. Since there is no way to know what is in the illegally produced drug, the risks are even greater.
  10. LSD – LSD is a hallucinogenic drug that is taken mainly for recreational purposes. Taking the drug often causes psychedelic visuals and a feeling of time distortion. These effects have made LSD a popular drug for a long time. The drug is often placed on blotting paper in doses called ‘tabs.’ It is not considered addictive in the traditional sense. Tolerance to the drug builds quickly, preventing regular use. The person can use the drug and get the full effect after the tolerance diminishes, typically after a few days.

The Bridge Between Adolescent and Teen Recreational Drug Use

Teens and adults engage in recreational drug use for many of the same reasons. They want to feel different or better than they do normally. Drug use may be part of their socializing practice or they may engage in it for relaxation. Sometimes people use drugs out of boredom or to have more fun. Trying a new drug is usually the result of curiosity, to see how it makes them feel. Teens and adults may use drugs to self-medicate for mental disorders or as a means to escape situations in their lives.

Alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana are all popular choices for teens.

Teenager Smoking and Drinking

The fact that marijuana use among teens hasn’t decreased like other recreational drugs is still a concern for one significant reason. More than half of new illicit drug users start by using marijuana. After that are prescription pain relievers and inhalants. That means that more than half of all the adolescents and teens using marijuana today will advance to use other illicit drugs.

How Parents Can Help

One of the most important things parents can do to prevent recreational drug use by their kids is to set a good example. Children are much more likely to do what you do than what you say. The old adage that actions speak louder than words couldn’t be truer. Show them that you mean what you say by living up to the standards you set for them.

Keep the communication flowing. Don’t let a hectic schedule or your child’s unwillingness to talk about their day stop you. If you have to get them in the car with nowhere else to go, do it. The more you take the time to talk and really listen to what they have to say, the less likely they are to let things get out of hand. Make sure they know they can come to you with any questions or concerns.

Keep your cool when your child tells you something that causes worry. They may start by testing the waters to measure your response. If you go off the deep end when they tell you a friend got in trouble for having drugs at school, that’s as far as that conversation will ever go. Ask them what they think about a situation and how they think it should be handled. You want to build communication and trust between you. Don’t judge or criticize.

Dont Judge Me

Keep the conversation about drugs and alcohol on the table from the time they are young. Keep in mind that some children start experimenting with drugs and alcohol by the age of eight years old. Assuming it won’t happen to your child is a sure way to leave them vulnerable. Don’t let someone else be the first ones to talk about drugs to your child.

Set clear rules and punishments for breaking them. This lets them know how important the issue of using drugs and alcohol is to you. Some parents like to present themselves as a friend to their children more than a parent. Take the opposite approach. Your children are more likely to feel secure and thrive in an environment with boundaries.

Praise and reward them when they get it right. Help build their confidence for accomplishing things they should be proud of. Always look for the positive in any situation.

Keep up with common trends in recreational drugs. Know what kinds of problems are going on in your neighborhood and in your children’s school. Know what to look for and don’t be afraid to confront your child with your suspicions. You can’t handle an issue involving addiction unless you know there is one.

If one of the adults in your family is struggling with addiction, get the treatment needed for recovery. Allowing your children to see the effects drug and alcohol use has on you or someone in your family will only increase their odds of following in those footsteps. If your child has an addiction, don’t wait to get the help they need. Contact Recovery Oasis for more information. This is the place to begin your journey to recovery.