Becoming Involved in Legal Troubles and Drugs as a College Student

addiction affects jail overcrowding

Contributor: Dr. Stacy Seikel, Medical Director for Georgia Detox & Recovery Centers and the Chief Medical Officer of Integrated Recovery Programs for RiverMend Health.

female-702961_640Every year across America millions of eager and hopeful young adults embark on a new life path: they begin college. For many, this chapter is met with a mix of excitement and fear. A new life means new responsibilities, relationships, freedoms, and pressures. Adjusting can be challenging, rewarding, and frustrating all at once.

For some, college marks the beginning of a tumultuous path leading to an uncertain destination.

The College Life

College students account for one of the largest groups of substance abusers across the nation. While the specific drug abuse trends tend to change over time, the unique pressures that college students face remain constant.

These pressures include:


For many young adults, college is the first taste of full freedom from adult supervision. On one hand, this freedom can feel exhilarating; on the other hand, it can bring with it the responsibility to be fully accountable to manage the pressures of coursework, part-time jobs, and other obligations; all without the support network that helped get them into college to begin with. For this reason, some students turn to drugs and alcohol as a means to cope with stress.

Pressure to achieve.

lafayette-college-80476_640The pressure to perform well academically places an enormous amount of pressure on teens. This pressure only increases in college. Coursework can be demanding and rigorous. Students who are high achievers can quickly find themselves grappling for ways to cope as they compete to earn top grades and highly selective intern positions.

For some, drugs and alcohol serve as a way to handle these pressures.

A need to fit in.

College is a time for new relationships. Many students head off to college without a single social contact. This can mean finding new friendships based on convenience as opposed to sharing common values and goals. Being surrounded by other people experimenting and using drugs and alcohol can have a profound impact on the likelihood of trying it yourself.
A Startling Epidemic

While some college students manage to navigate their college career dodging the pressures and temptations to participate in drug and alcohol use, most do not.

According to a 2013 national survey1, nearly 60% of college students ages 18-22 report drinking alcohol in the past month and almost 40% report binge drinking at some point in the past 30 days.

white-board-593309_640That’s not all. A Columbia University study2 found that almost half of full-time college students binge drink or abuse prescription and illegal drugs. The same study also found that 1.8 million college students meet the medical definition for substance abuse and dependency. That’s three times the rate of the general population.

Who Is at Risk?

Some students are at higher risk for substance use and abuse than others. The problem is that while we can identify particular risk factors that may predispose someone to drug and alcohol use, such as genetics and environmental factors, we cannot predict who will succumb to addiction.

Some risk factors include:

  • Family history. The risk of developing dependency on drugs or alcohol is largely influenced by genetics. Dependency is not a moral issue or a reflection of a lack of willpower. Addiction is a complex disease with a strong genetic component.
  • A co-occurring disorder. Having another mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or post-traumatic stress disorder is a risk factor for substance use and addiction.
  • Peer pressure. The pressure to fit in can sometimes be overwhelming making peer pressure an influential factor in starting to use drugs and alcohol.
  • A highly addictive drug. Some drugs have a faster rate of addiction than others. This includes stimulants such as cocaine, heroin or painkillers.

Far Reaching Consequences

study-763571_640The consequences of drug and alcohol use can be devastating. Nearly 600,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 are injured while under the influence of alcohol and an estimated 1,825 die from alcohol related, unintentional injuries, including car accidents each year3.

Then there’s the countless number of other implications that accompany drug and alcohol use including severe health, emotional, social, and legal consequences. The fact that underage drinking and most addictive substances are illegal does not deter college students from engaging in behavior that can lead them straight down a path until they find that they are face to face with legal troubles.

The Leverage of Legal Troubles

No one wants to face legal troubles. But on occasion a legal problem is the catalyst that forces examination of a much bigger and more destructive problem: drug addiction.

One of the biggest challenges faced by those who suffer from addiction is that they don’t believe they have a problem. College students are often away from their friends and family who know them best. These are the people who are most likely to intervene and facilitate treatment.

Sometimes, a legal problem can act as an intervening event that helps the addict break their denial long enough to recognize the true scope of their problem and seek the help that they need.

This is not the ideal course of events, but once addiction takes root there are few ideal scenarios remaining. The important outcome is that the cycle of denial is broken and help is provided so that college can become a time of preparing for the future, not destroying it.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you ever been involved with drug related legal problems as a college student? How did that experience impact your life and your road to recovery?

About the Author:

Stacy Seikel photoDr. Stacy Seikel is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine and has been awarded numerous awards and honors.

At RiverMend Health, Dr. Seikel provides quality medical care and assistance to individuals affected by chemical dependencies and pain medication abuse.


  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-48, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4863. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.
  2. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. (March 2007). Wasting the Best and Brightest: Substance Abuse at America’s Colleges and Universities. New York, NY.
  3. Hingson, R.W.; Zha, W.; and Weitzman, E.R. Magnitude of and trends in alcohol-¬related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18–24, 1998¬2005. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs Supplement.16:12–20, 2009. PMID: 19538908

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addiction. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 8th, 2015
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