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How and Where Are Youths Getting Drugs?

Despite the fact that many commonly used drugs are illegal, there’s a greater portion of the population suffering from addiction today than at any other time in our history. In fact, the misuse of mind-altering substances has become so pervasive in the U.S. that it’s even alarmingly common among adolescents and teens.

Statistics show that while underage use of tobacco products has decreased over the years, the use of alcohol and other intoxicants has actually increased by a significant margin. Looking at high school students alone, it’s estimated that about 35 percent have consumed alcohol at least once over the past month and over 16 percent have engaged in a least one episode of binge drinking in the past two weeks.1By the 12th grade, approximately half of all adolescents will have experimented with at least one drug, whether that means misusing a legal drug, such as prescription medication, or using an illicit street drug like cocaine.2Of course, adolescents and teens need some level of access to be able to use drugs or alcohol, which begs the obvious question: How are they getting these substances?


In surveys, most adolescents admit that they can obtain a number of different mind-altering substances with relative ease. However, the ease with which they can obtain a substance depends on the substance in question.

Alcohol is the most obvious example of a mind-altering substance that an adolescent could access in his or her own home. Many American adults keep alcohol in the home and don’t go through the trouble of keeping the alcohol out of their children’s reach. However, it’s also very common for youths to find prescription medications in their own homes. The remnants of prescriptions are often left unattended and unmonitored in medicine cabinets, making it easy for teens to help themselves.


Most youths spend more time in school than almost anywhere else, their homes notwithstanding. Similar to how a hacker becomes more likely to find a security vulnerability the longer that he or she looks for one, adolescents and teens will eventually notice gaps in the oversight at school. For instance, a teenager who realizes that his or her school doesn’t conduct random locker searches may keep any contraband in his or her locker with no teachers or administrators being the wiser.

Recently, it was found that at least 60 percent of all illicit drugs that pass through adolescents’ and teens’ hands are stored, sold and/or used at their schools.3 As well, over half of all youths who use recreational drugs have a place on or near school grounds where they’re able to imbibe their substances without getting caught. Therefore, it’s quite possible for an adolescent to abuse mind-altering substances without the substances ever being in their homes. Within reason, this makes most substances obtainable since virtually any classmates could be a source.


Using fake identification may only be a necessary option for adolescents under the legal purchasing age, but assuming that the actual fake IDs are obtainable, this would be an easy way for youths to gain access to alcohol and tobacco products.

According to surveys, approximately 7 percent of American high school students have used fake IDs to buy and drink alcohol,4 but some believe this number will increase as the technology necessary to make counterfeit identification becomes more accessible and less expensive. In fact, these newer technologies are making it much harder for scanners to distinguish real IDs from fake ones, which is why this remains a concern.

But fake IDs aren’t just for buying alcohol. In recent years, restrictions have been put on a number of over-the-counter medications — especially cough syrups and cold medicines — due to the dextromethorphan and other dangerous ingredients5 they contain. These are often called “behind-the-counter medications.” In short, young people may take these medications in dangerously large amounts to experience the hallucinogenic and dissociative effects that high dosages trigger. Since the law states you be 18 or older to buy such medications today, many youths are turning to counterfeit IDs.


You can buy almost anything on the internet today, including prescription drugs. There are countless online pharmacies that allow individuals to buy a variety of different prescription medications that could otherwise never be obtained without a prescription from a doctor. In many cases, these online vendors are located in other countries, which makes getting them shut down quite a complicated process. This means that any teen could search for one of these illegitimate online pharmacies, order a bunch of painkillers, and have them delivered right to his or her home just a couple of days later. Of course, this is a major problem for other demographic groups, too, but with online shopping being as common as it is today, most youths could receive shipments of prescription drugs without their families suspecting anything unusual.

While we expect adolescents to try new things and push boundaries, substance abuse among youths has become a huge problem with far-reaching implications. For instance, the prevalence of alcohol and drug use among youths indicates that the recreational use of a mind-altering substance is becoming normalized and socially accepting. In turn, this means more people becoming addicts, more addicts who are receiving treatment, and so on. However, by learning how youths are obtaining alcohol and drugs, we are better positioned to understand some of their reasons for turning to substance abuse in the first place and may be able to steer them in a safer, more productive direction.







Written by Dane O’Leary