Drug Abuse

Get Informed - Substance Abuse

Not so Fun Facts

  • 35.6% of high-school students have used marijuana one or more times during their life. (1)
  • 6.8% of students have tried marijuana before 13 years of age. (1)
  • 6.2%% of students have sniffed glue, breathed the contents of aerosol spray cans, or inhaled paints or sprays to get high at least once in their life. (1)
  • 14.0% of students have tried Prescription Drugs (such as codeine, OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, or Hydrocodone), without a doctor’s prescription, one or more times during their life. (1)
  • 19.8% of students were Offered, Sold, Or Given An Illegal Drug On School Property in the 12 months prior to the survey. (1)

Frequently Asked Questions

What drugs can be abused?

Drug abuse has multiple definitions.  It involves the use of any illegal drug such as cocaine, marijuana, or heroin.  Drug abuse is also the use of an inhaled chemical to get “high” (ie: gasoline,paint thinner, and glue), a plant part to get “high” (ie: jimson weed seeds or mushrooms), or any purposeful improper use of a prescription drug.

What Do Drugs Do to the Brain?

When drugs enter the brain, they can interrupt the brain’s work and actually change how the brain performs its jobs. These changes are what lead to compulsive drug use, the hallmark of addiction.

Drugs of abuse affect three primary areas of the brain:

  • The brain stem, which is in charge of all of the functions our body needs to stay alive including breathing, circulating blood, and digesting food. It also links the brain with the spinal cord, which runs down the back and is responsible for moving muscles and limbs as well as letting the brain know what’s happening to the body.
  • The limbic system links together many brain structures that control our emotional responses, such as feeling pleasure when we eat chocolate. The good feelings motivate us to repeat the behavior(s).
  • The cerebral cortex (the mushroom like part of the outer brain) processes information from our senses and allows us to effectively think, plan and make decisions.  The front part of the cortex, known as the frontal cortex or forebrain, is the thinking center. It powers our ability to think, plan, solve problems, and make decisions.

Drugs are chemicals. They work in the brain by tapping into its communication system and interfering with the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information.  In fact, some drugs can change the brain in ways that last long after the person has stopped taking drugs, maybe even permanently. This is more likely when a drug is taken repeatedly.

Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, activate neurons (nerve cells) because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter (brain chemicals that send signals). Other drugs, such as amphetamine, cause nerve cells to release excessive amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals.

Further, all drugs of abuse affects the brain’s “reward” circuit, which is part of the limbic system. Normally, the reward circuit responds to pleasurable experiences by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which creates feelings of pleasure, and tells the brain that this is something important to pay attention to and remember. Drugs hijack this system, causing unusually large amounts of dopamine to flood the system.  This flood of dopamine is what causes the “high” or euphoria associated with drug abuse.

The first time someone uses a drug of abuse, he or she experiences unnaturally intense feelings of pleasure. The reward circuitry is activated with dopamine carrying the message.  Now the person needs drugs just to bring dopamine levels up to normal. Larger amounts of the drug are needed to create a dopamine flood, or “high,” an effect known as “tolerance.” These brain changes drive a person to seek out and use drugs compulsively, despite negative consequences such as stealing, losing friends, family problems, or other physical or mental problems brought on by drug  addiction.  It impairs your ability to think clearly, to feel OK without drugs, and to control your behaviors. These all contribute to the compulsive drug seeking and drug use that defines an addiction. (2)

Want more Information About a Specific Drug?

For detailed information on each drug, refer to http://teens.drugabuse.gov/facts/index.php

For fun games to help learn more about all drugs, please refer to http://teens.drugabuse.gov/interactives-and-videos

Are there Treatments for Addicts?

There are treatments for drug addictions, but getting a person who is addicted into treatment problems can be difficult.  Sometimes a loved one can convince that person or sometimes it is a legal requirement to get them into treatment facilities.  The good news is that the right program can be beneficial to some addicts.

Tips to Avoid Drugs

  • Stay Informed of the Dangers of Drugs
  • Surround yourself with Friends that Do Not Do Drugs
  • Keep your drinks to yourself so that nothing can be slipped into your drink that you are unaware of

Need Help? How Do I Know if Someone Has a Drug Problem?

Get Informed - Substance Abuse

There are questions people can ask to assess whether or not a person has a drug problem. These do not necessarily indicate that someone is addicted, but answering yes to any of these questions may suggest a developing problem, which could require follow-up with a professional drug treatment specialist. These include (2):

  1. Have you ever ridden in a car driven by someone (including yourself) who had been using alcohol or drugs?
  2. Do you ever use alcohol or drugs to relax, to feel better about yourself, or to fit in?
  3. Do you ever use alcohol or drugs when you are alone?
  4. Do you ever forget things you did while using alcohol or drugs?
  5. Do family or friends ever tell you to cut down on your use of alcohol or drugs?
  6. Have you ever gotten into trouble while you were using alcohol or drugs?


It’s usually hard for people to recognize they have a problem, which is why friends or family often step in. Quitting is hard to do, and many people find they can’t do it without help. The best thing you can do is to talk to someone you trust-preferably an adult-who can support you” so you don’t have to deal with your problem alone.


Lots of resources are available for people with substance abuse problems. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous offer information and recovery programs for teens. The Alcohol and Drug Information hotline is (800) 729-6686.



  1. 2017 National Youth Risk Behavior Study, seen at http://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/App/QuestionsOrLocations.aspx?CategoryID=C3#C3, last accessed January 2019.
  2. From http://teens.drugabuse.gov/facts/facts_brain1.php (with permission)


Information Last updated January 2019

Disclaimer: All health information on Girlsmarts.org is for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a trusted adult/guardian or professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never disregard parental or professional medical advice or delay in seeking these because of something you have read on the Girlsmarts.org website. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call a trusted adult and your doctor or 911 immediately.


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