Study: First-time substance use among college students varies throughout year

In an announcement that is sure to send shivers down the spines of parents of college students everywhere, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) detailed the results of its National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which examined the initiation patterns of full-time college students’ use of illicit or harmful substances. The study found that usage patterns peaked at different times of the year depending on the substance. In addition to its survey results, SAMHSA also offered resources for parents and other adults to assist them in discussing the health risks of alcohol use with their college students.


The study discovered that 383,000 full-time college students, or, 1,000 per day, used marijuana for the first time over the previous year. The peak times for the first-time use, or initiation, was in June, with 1,500 full-time students starting to use marijuana each day.


The study also found that 450,000 underage (18 to 20 years old) full-time college students, or 1,200 per day, began drinking in the previous year. The underage drinking initiation was found to peak during June, with an average of 1,883 full-times students beginning to drink each day.

Prescription Drugs

Although summer is the peak time for students to begin alcohol use, the same was not true for first-time use of prescription drugs that were taken for non-medical purposes. The study estimates that 251,000 full-time college students began using pain relievers for non-medical uses over the previous year, with an average of over 700 students beginning to use them each day. December was found to be the peak month, with 850 students beginning to use pain relievers each day.


The study also found that the non-medical use of stimulant medications peaked in November, December, and April, with 137,000 full-time students, or 400 each day, beginning the use of prescription stimulants for non-medical uses over the last year. During November, December, and April, the average daily rate of first-time users roses above 500 and peaked at about 585. The study was not designed to determine the cause of the first-time use trends, but did note that the rise in the first-time use of prescription stimulants coincided with times when midterm exams and final exams typically occurred.  This suggests that students may begin using prescription stimulants for non-medical purposes because they believe it may assist with their academic performance. SAMHSA points out that improved performance has not been proven, and use of stimulants can be dangerous.

Tobacco and Legal Alcohol Use

In addition to the above substances, the survey also looked at initiation patterns for use of legal substances that could still pose health risks to college students, including tobacco and also examined legal alcohol use by students aged between 21 and 22 years old. The study found that the peak months for first-time use of cigarettes for full-time college students were June, September, and October, while the peak month for legal alcohol use was January.

SAMHSA Acting Administrator Kana Enomoto said, “These findings show that college students are vulnerable to substance use at any time – not just when they are away at school.” Enomoto added, “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.”

Discussions with Students

In order to encourage parents and other adults to discuss alcohol use with college-bound young adults, SAMHSA developed “The Sound of Your Voice,”  a video and a related companion guide, which offers suggestions on how to effectively discuss the risks associated with underage drinking, including alcohol-related disorders. SAMHSA also engages in various efforts to prevent underage drinking.