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What are the most common substances used by teens?


  • Ethyl alcohol is an intoxicating ingredient found in beer, wine, and liquor. It is by far the most common psychoactive substance used by adolescents.
  • Alcohol affects every organ in the body. Intoxication can impair brain function and motor skills; heavy use can increase risk of certain cancers, stroke, and liver disease.
  • Adolescents commonly engage in heavy episodic (“binge”) drinking. This drinking pattern may be associated with periods of retrograde amnesia (“black outs”), which results from alcohol toxicity to neurons (brain cells). During periods of “black out,” adolescents are very vulnerable to being hurt, abused, or molested.
  • Binge drinking also makes adolescents particularly susceptible to accidents — including motor vehicle accidents. Unfortunately even taking away access to a car cannot keep an adolescent safe. Numerous newspaper reports detail stories of adolescents who died by drowning, falling, or even exposure to cold weather.

Research also shows that the early onset of drinking greatly increases the risk of developing alcohol dependence later in life — from less than 10 percent risk among those who begin drinking at age 21, to almost 50 percent risk for those who begin drinking at age 14 or younger.


  • Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States. It’s made up of dried parts of the Cannabis sativa hemp plant
  • Marijuana is an addictive substance. Like all addictive substances, chronic use of marijuana causes changes in the brain.
  • Short-term effects of marijuana use include euphoria, distorted perceptions (which may be pleasurable), memory impairment, and difficulty thinking and solving problems.
  • Adolescents who develop marijuana use disorders typically will think they can stop at any time and most often will not associate problems with their use of marijuana. Many will be unwilling to quit or seek treatment.
  • Marijuana addiction is associated with serious mental health disorders. Many kids with marijuana addiction will feel they have to continue using marijuana to control their anxiety or depression. While marijuana may help them in the short run, chronic use makes it very difficult to treat these associated conditions.
  • Use of marijuana can also precipitate thought disorders, such as schizophrenia, and other serious mental health disorders in susceptible adolescents.
  • While several states have passed “medical marijuana” laws these laws are not recognized by the federal government, and the FDA continues to categorize marijuana as “class 1” indicating no accepted medical use. To date there are no safety and efficacy measures that physicians use to guide medical prescribing.

Other cannabinoids

  • Use of synthetic cannabinoids, sometimes called “K2” or “Spice” by adolescents, is on the rise. These substances have similar effects as marijuana, though the side effect profile may vary depending on the individual substance.



  • Inhalants are breathable chemical vapors that adolescents intentionally inhale because of the chemicals' psycho-active effects. The substances inhaled are often common household products (such as lighters, whipped cream cans, keyboard cleaners, and body spray).
  • Inhalants are often used by younger teenagers because these products are easy to get and do not generally arouse suspicion by adults.
  • Most inhalants produce a rapid high that resembles alcohol intoxication. If sufficient amounts are inhaled, nearly all solvents and gases produce a loss of sensation, and even unconsciousness.
  • A single use of inhalants can be lethal.


  • This group includes prescription medications such as ADHD medications (such as Adderall and Ritalin).
  • Stimulant medications are prescribed to improve the inattention associated with ADHD.
  • Diversion of stimulant medication is common. Kids may give, trade, or sell their medications to peers. Adolescents and young adults may take stimulant medications to improve focus or studying. However, use of stimulants by individuals who do not have ADHD is not recommended. It does not improve long-term performance. Unmonitored stimulant use can lead to physical problems, mental health problems, and addiction.
  • At high doses, stimulants can produce euphoria and give the user a higher level of alertness. Adolescents trying to achieve euphoria may crush pills and “snort” them in order to get a high dose of amphetamine to the brain very quickly.
  • When misused, this class of drugs has effects similar to cocaine.


  • Cocaine is a powerfully addictive central nervous system stimulant that is snorted, injected, or smoked. Crack is cocaine hydrochloride powder that’s been processed to form a rock crystal that is then usually smoked.
  • Cocaine usually makes the user feel euphoric and energetic, but also increases body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate. Even sporadic cocaine use can be associated with sudden cardiac death.

MDMA (ecstasy or molly)

  • MDMA, most commonly known as ecstasy or Molly, is a synthetic drug that produces both energizing and psychedelic effects.
  • Ecstasy is referred to as a “club drug” because it tends to be used by teenagers and young adults at bars, nightclubs, concerts, and parties.
  • Short-term effects include feelings of mental stimulation, emotional warmth, enhanced sensory perception, and increased physical energy.
  • Ecstasy use can lead to seizures and other neurologic side effects, including hyperthermia, which can be lethal.

Methamphetamine (meth)

  • Methamphetamine is a very addictive stimulant that is closely related to amphetamine.
  • It is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting powder taken orally or by snorting or injecting, or as a rock "crystal" that is heated and smoked.
  • Methamphetamine increases wakefulness and physical activity, produces rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat, and increased blood pressure and body temperature.
  • Methamphetamine use can be fatal. Use can cause a person’s body temperature to rise so quickly that they pass out and can die if they do not receive proper medical attention. Death can also occur from heart attack or stroke, caused by the drug’s effects on the body’s production of norepinephrine, which can raise heart beat and blood pressure, while constricting blood vessels.


  • Depressants work by slowing down the activity of the brain and central nervous system. They may be prescribed by a doctor for anxiety or for help sleeping.
  • Common depressants include:
    • barbiturates: used to treat seizure and anxiety disorders
    • benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan, Klonipin): used to treat acute stress and anxiety and sleep disorders
    • sleep medications (Ambien, Lunesta): used to treat sleep disorders
  • When taken as prescribed, depressants can be very helpful, but taking depressants to get high or depressants not prescribed to you can cause serious health problems and can lead to dependence.
  • Depressants can cause slurred speech, disorientation, sleepiness, and shallow breathing. It is possible to overdose and die from using depressants.

For more information on the effects of different substances, please visit one of these sites: NIDA For Teens and SAMHSA.