This post: How and Where Teens Get Drugs and Alcohol: It’s Easier Than You Think
Co-Written by: Marybeth Bock and Nancy Reynolds
I was talking with a mom the other day who was worried sick, heartbroken and angry – she found weed in her 16-year-old son’s bedroom.
“I just didn’t see this coming!” she said. “After all the conversations we’ve had. After all the times I Iectured him about the dangers. Why would he do this? And, as an underage teen, where in the world is he getting it?”
How and Where Teens Get Drugs and Alcohol: It’s Easier Than You Think
Sometimes, the harsh reality is impossible to miss…
Maybe your teen walked in the door after hanging out at a friend’s house and they reek of alcohol and they’re slurring their words. Or, perhaps you pick up on a smell you know all too well… weed. Or, it might be the discovery of something in your teen’s bedroom, jacket pocket, backpack, or car. Other times, it can be much harder to unveil.
It can be a huge shock when you come to the realization that your teen is vaping, using drugs, or drinking alcohol. At some point, the question that crosses your mind is “How in the heck did they get their hands on this?”
But let me reassure you of this, parents… it doesn’t matter that our kids are underage and can’t legally buy nicotine vape products, drugs, or alcohol, they can still gain access to it, and… it’s a whole lot easier than you think.
What Illegal Substances Are Teens Using?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), alcohol is the most commonly used substance among teens in the United States. The most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students, during the past 30 days:
- 29% drank alcohol
- 14% binge drank
- 5% drove after drinking alcohol
- 17% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol
- One study found that teen cannabis use has increased 245% over the last 20 years
- 37% of US high school students reported use of marijuana in the past 30 days
- In 2022, 1 in 10 (or more than 2.5 million) U.S. middle and high school students vaped
- The most common types of prescribed drugs that are misused by teenagers are pain relievers like opioids; sedatives for anxiety or sleep problems like benzodiazepines; and stimulants that are used for ADHD or obesity like Adderall or Ritalin.
6 Ways Teenagers Obtain Illegal Substances
Whether it’s a handle of Vodka for a Friday night party, weed so they can chill out after a long week, Adderall to help them focus when studying, or Opioids to help them relax, here’s the lowdown on how and where teens get drugs and alcohol.
1. At Home
It’s understandable that a teenager who is looking to experiment with drugs or alcohol will first look in the easiest place – their own home. Unlocked or easily accessible medicine and liquor cabinets are frequent targets of teens who want to use themselves or want to try to sell items to other teens looking to buy.
2. Friends, Family, Acquaintances
When you’re a resourceful teenager determined to get your hands on something illegal, it’s easy to turn to those closest to you. It’s not uncommon for teens to access alcohol, tobacco products, weed, and even prescription drugs from older siblings, cousins, friends, classmates, or even their parents.
3. At School
Most teens spend upwards of seven hours a day at school – the perfect place to gain access to drugs and/or connect with someone who can supply them with just about any illegal substance they set their sights on.
A “plug,” (slang for a drug dealer or a “drug connect”), is the person considered to be the “go-to” guy or girl who can hook people up with drugs, making it all too easy for teens.
In fact, a 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk and Behavior Survey show that 21.8% of high school students claim they have been sold, given, or offered drugs on school property.
(Heads up, parents, pay attention if you see your teen using the? emoji when texting or on social media platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter. It typically refers to “the plug” – slang for a drug dealer.)
4. Fake ID Card
Teens can also get access to alcohol and marijuana (in states where marijuana is legal for recreational use) by using fake ID cards. Among teens, word spreads quickly about which local bars and shops aren’t strict about checking IDs, and which websites are best for buying realistic fake IDs. Be under no illusion, fake IDs are big business.
5. Through Social Media Apps
According to a study conducted by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, “Finding and buying illegal drugs on social media apps like Snapchat, TikTok, and WhatsApp is nearly as convenient as calling an Uber or ordering a pizza.” The office’s 182-page report found illegal drug purchases are “staggering” on social media apps, which has contributed to the surge in fentanyl overdoses
“Where once a teen might have had to seek out a street dealer, hassle friends, or learn to navigate the dark web to access illicit drugs, young people can now locate drug dealers from the comfort of their bedroom using their smartphone. And, sellers can create new profiles as soon as one is suspended or removed, creating a frustrating “whack-a-mole” effect for law enforcement,” the report said.
Teens can also order illegal drugs without a prescription on the dark web, which is only accessible through a special browser: The Tor browser. The browser encrypts activity and allows users to access websites without their identities being revealed. It’s the unregulated and anonymous part of the internet commonly associated with illegal activities. There are estimated to be well over 9,000 sites selling illegal drugs on the dark web.
6. Illegitimate Online Pharmacies
Aside from the dark web, there are countless fake pharmacies that illegally sell drugs online. Many of them are based outside of the U.S., so they aren’t governed by American laws. A teenager can purchase prescription drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax, Valium, and Ambien and have them shipped discreetly right to their own door or to a friend’s house.
Getting drugs from these fake pharmacies is extremely dangerous. There isn’t any quality control to guarantee the dosage, and these medications could range from sugar pills to dangerous pills spiked with a toxic ingredient like fentanyl. The possibility of overdose or death is high.
According to the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, one in five teens has tried prescription drugs illegally. The majority (76%), bought those prescription pills illegally.
What Can Parents Do to Prevent Their Teen From Accessing Illegal Substances?
1. Make Prescription Meds and Alcohol Inaccessible at Home
Make sure all prescription medicine is stored in a safe place that’s inaccessible to your teen and be sure to properly dispose of any unused medicine so it isn’t lying around.
Also, be sure to pay close attention to any alcohol in the house to ensure your teen isn’t helping themselves. (Many teens will replace alcohol they’ve taken out of a bottle with water so it’s a red flag if alcohol tastes watered down.)
2. Get to Know Your Teen’s Friends AND Their Families
They say it takes a village to raise kids and that especially holds true when you have teenagers. When you have a relationship with other parents, it’s much easier to keep an eye out for each other’s kids and openly discuss issues like drugs, alcohol, tobacco, older sibling interactions and online activities.
3. Keep Tabs on Your Teen’s Online History and Social Media Interactions
Every teenager is capable of getting wrapped up in dangerous activity, which is why it’s so important to monitor your teen’s online activity. If you are at all suspicious of illegal online purchases, take a look at your teen’s online history, or look specifically for the “Tor Browser”- the gateway to the dark web where teens can purchase illicit drugs anonymously.
4. Keep an Eye on Your Teen’s Backpack, Bedroom, and Car for Paraphanalia
Drug and vaping paraphernalia can come in all shapes and sizes, including things such as cigar or cigarette papers, bongs, hookahs, pipes, vape pens, cartridges, needles, small mirrors, scales, and blotter paper, to name a few.
5. Check Your Teen’s Phone for “Key” Words
According to law experts, terms like “Blues, Blueberries, Apache, China Girl, China Town, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfellas, Great Bear, He-Man, Jackpot, King Ivory, Murder 8, Tango & Cash, f3nt, TNT, fluff, tabs, vikes, hydros, vitamins or 30s” pertain to illegal drugs. Also, “Weed, Pot, Ganja, Mary Jane, Hash, and Dope,” are slang for marijuana. Be aware that these “code” words change frequently so pay attention to any odd abbreviations or words.
6. Keep the Lines of Communication Open with Your Teen
Have honest and non-judgmental conversations often with your teen about the prevalence and dangers of vaping, drinking, and drug use. Acknowledge that you realize that peer pressure is a powerful force and that you understand temptation could be strong. But the risk is simply too high to engage in activity that could literally endanger their life. Assure your teen that you are always there for them and that they can come to you about anything.
You’re not a bad or overprotective parent if you check up on your teen, glance through their backpack, or monitor their search history on their computer or phone – you’re doing your job as a parent. You’re keeping them safe!
For more helpful information on how and where teens get drugs and alcohol visit: Substance Use Prevention Resources for Youth and College Students
Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.