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Leslie Gilmour

What Are the Effects of Drug Abuse on Academic Performance?

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Edited by Leslie Gilmour, Tuesday, 15 Aug 2017, 10:58

Drug abuse is a real problem in the school environment which affects students between the ages of 13 and 24. A recent survey funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows that in 2016, nearly a quarter (23%) of 8th graders have consumed more than a few sips of alcohol, 9.4% have used marijuana, and 5% have used other illicit drugs. The use of legal and illegal substances persists throughout high school and college, increasing their risk for drug abuse. Due to these risks, parents, school faculty, and students should be aware what are the effects of drug abuse on academic performance.

The Most Common Drugs Abused By Students

Students abuse a wide range of legalized substances, illicit drugs, prescription medication, and over-the-counter drugs. Each affects student performance in a different way, mainly because of their unique chemical constituents. Let us take a look at the most common drugs abused by students, and how they affect students’ academic performance.


Alcohol is the most widely abused, legalized substance among students of all ages. Despite the recent decline of alcohol use in teenagers, the likelihood of abusing it continues to increase with age.

According to Monitoring the Future, an ongoing study supported by NIDA, 4% of 8th graders, 11% of 10th graders, and 17% of 12th graders were reported to binge drink within the last two weeks before the survey. For their age, this means consuming 3 or more drinks consecutively. 6 out of 10 admitted to consuming alcohol before finishing high school, and almost half (46%) of 12th graders said they’d been drunk at least once in their lifetime. Alcohol abuse is most prevalent in college campuses where 32% of students engage in binge drinking.

Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Academic Performance

Research shows that a person’s brain continues to develop until the early 20s. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that underage alcohol consumption may have negative effects on the brain’s development and alter its structure and function. As a result, learning problems may arise and a student’s academic performance will be less than optimal.

A study by the NIAAA shows college students who binge drink and consumed alcohol at least 3 times a week were 5 to 6 times more likely to miss a class and do poorly on a test or project. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes the same problems with underage and college drinking, citing poor or failing grades, higher absence rates, and memory problems as direct consequences to their school performance. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, 40% of academic problems and 28% of college dropouts every year are caused by alcohol.

There are several reasons why alcohol affects school performance. Jeff Georgi, coordinator of Duke University’s Alcohol and Addictions Program, cited that alcohol impairs memory and learning ability, and disrupts quality sleep which is necessary for creating long-term memories.  


As of 2016, the annual prevalence of marijuana among adolescents was 9.4% of 8th graders, 23.9% of 10th graders, and 35.6% of 12th graders. Meanwhile, as much as 4.6% of full-time college students used marijuana everyday in 2015.

Effects of Marijuana on Academic Performance

One study shows that marijuana use reduces a person’s capacity for learning, memory, and attention by suppressing the activity of neurons which are necessary for staying attentive and focused. The worst part is that it could take days to weeks for these effects to wear off. This is why students who smoke marijuana everyday suffer from reduced intellectual capacity most, if not, all of the time. Students who regularly smoked marijuana also had poorer educational outcomes and were less likely to graduate than those who didn’t smoke marijuana.

Prescription Drugs

Students abuse prescription medications for various reasons. For instance, stimulants such as Adderall, Concerta, and Ritalin enhance brain activity, increase alertness and attention, and improve energy levels. Because of these, students usually take them to help with their studies or as a replacement for cocaine. Sedatives and tranquilizers like Ambien, Ativan, Klonopin, Valium, and Xanax are taken by students to help them relax since they slow down the brain’s function – much like the “date rape” drugs Rohypnol and GHB. Opioid analgesics such as Methadone, OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin are usually abused in place of heroin since they mimic the drug’s effects.

Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse on Academic Performance

While some prescription drugs are used by students to improve their performance in school, using them for non-medical reasons has generally been associated with academic problems. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2009) shows that 21% of high school students who received C’s, and  41% of high who received D’s and F’s for grades, took prescription drugs without a prescription. In comparison, only 13% and 19% of students who received A’s and B’s respectively were found to have abused prescription medication. 

Opioids are known to damage to the brain’s white matter, which reduces a student’s ability to decide and behave accordingly in stressful situations.

OTC Drugs

Over-the-counter medications are also being abused by students, particularly teenagers. Cough and cold medicines are popular because they contain dextromethorphan which causes a euphoric state, better known as a “high”. However, dextromethorphan causes memory loss and problems with focus which affect students’ academic performance.

Other Illicit Drugs

Some students abuse illicit drugs such as heroin, amphetamines, and cocaine. The main problem with illicit drugs is that they tend to be addictive. Drug addiction can significantly affect a student’s academic performance since it distracts them and keeps them from focusing on school. This is especially true if they experience withdrawal symptoms in-between use. 

Substance or drug abuse is a widespread phenomenon that begins as early as the 8th grade. Though numbers are declining for high school students, the incidence continues to worsen as students move up to college. Each drug will have different effects on a person’s body, but it can be agreed that no matter the substance, abuse will create problems in school. That is why it is very important for students and their peers to be fully aware what are the effects of drug abuse on school performance.

Most colleges and universities have a counselling service.  If you find yourself have any of the above problems, talk to them.

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Those alcohol consumption statistics seem rather low.  Are they from the USA rather than the UK?

Leslie Gilmour

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Yes, US, they were easier to find.