Craig Zirpolo

Over the past 5 years, opioid misuse in high school seniors has dropped 45 percent, from 8.7 to 4.8 percent according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But opioids are not the only prescription drugs used by adolescents.

Prescription drugs of abuse range from opioid painkillers and other sedatives to stimulants and anti-anxiety medication.

These drugs have little in common besides the fact that they come from a doctor. But they interestingly share many similarities when it comes to who uses them and who is at risk of developing problems.

Let’s explore prescription drug use in high school and college through data generated by Spit for Science below…

Lifetime Prescription Drug Use
Before Attending College

Hint: Click the different tabs to navigate the charts!



Zero Uses
1-5 Uses
6 or More

An overwhelming majority of students have never used prescription drugs recreationally before attending college.

92% of high school students have never used anti-anxiety medication.

86% of high school students have never used a prescription opioid recreationally before coming to college.

96% of high school students have never used a sedative.

88% of high school students have never used a stimulant.

What Percentage of College Students Have
Never Used a Prescription Drug?

1009080706050403020100Year 1, SpringYear 2, SpringYear 3, SpringYear 4, Spring% of Students Who Haven’t Used Each Substance


Like high school, an overwhelming majority of students never recreationally use prescription drugs during college.

93% of students have never used anti-anxiety medication during college.

94% of students have never used a prescription opioid during college.

98% of students have never used a sedative during college.

88% of students have never used a stimulant during college.

What Does This Tell Us Information
About Prescription Drug Use?

Despite vast differences between the environments and prescription drugs, prescription drug use prevalence does not significantly change between high school and college.

One potential reason for this lack of change is many of the genetic risk factors that influence substance use do not vary between substances. They are present during childhood and become more influential in adolescence and young adulthood. Because of this many people who are predisposed to risk will begin to express those traits before college.

To learn more about mental health and substance use risk factors, visit the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute website.

Spit for Science focuses on substance use in high school as well as college! Research shows that if healthcare providers can identify those who enter college already using substances or at risk of addiction, they can target specific prevention and intervention programming which helps those students avoid negative consequences and health outcomes from addiction.

To find out more about how Spit for Science findings inform
policy, programming and coursework at VCU, visit


More compelling evidence that addiction is indeed a disease passed through families with genetic risks, it’s not a choice, it’s a disease propensity!

Dr. Raymond Oenbrink
Latest posts by Dr. Raymond Oenbrink (see all)