Consequences of youth substance abuse

Young people who persistently abuse substances often experience an array of problems, including academic difficulties, health-related problems (including mental health), poor peer relationships, and involvement with the juvenile justice system. Additionally, there are consequences for family members, the community, and the entire society.


Declining grades, absenteeism from school and other activities, and increased potential for dropping out of school are problems associated with adolescent substance abuse. Hawkins, Catalano, and Miller (1992) cite research indicating that a low level of commitment to education and higher truancy rates appear to be related to substance use among adolescents. Cognitive and behavioral problems experienced by alcohol- and drug-using youth may interfere with their academic performance and also present obstacles to learning for their classmates (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1992).

Physical health

Injuries due to accidents (such as car accidents), physical disabilities and diseases, and the effects of possible overdoses are among the health-related consequences of teenage substance abuse. Disproportionate numbers of youth involved with alcohol and other drugs face an increased risk of death through suicide, homicide, accident, and illness.

The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) study -- in a representative sample of hospitals throughout the United States -- reports trends in people seeking emergency department treatment related to illegal drug use or nonmedical use of legal drugs. Preliminary 1994 estimates indicate drug-related emergency department episodes for youth ages 12 to 17 increased by 17 percent from 1993 to 1994. This increase was greater than for any of the older age groups reported. Significantly, emergency department visits related to marijuana/hashish for youth ages 12 to 17 increased 50 percent between 1993 and 1994 (McCaig, 1995). Ninety-one youth between the ages of 12 and 17 died of drug abuse in 1993 (Office of Applied Studies, 1994).

Transmission of HIV/AIDS primarily occurs through exposure to body fluids of an infected person during sexual contact or through sharing of unsterile drug-injection equipment. Another primary means of transmission is from mothers to infants during pregnancy or the birth process. Many substance-abusing youth engage in behavior that places them at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. This may include the actual use of psychoactive substances (particularly those that are injected) or behavior resulting from poor judgment and impulse control while experiencing the effects of mood-altering substances. Rates of AIDS diagnoses currently are relatively low among teenagers, compared with most other age groups. However, because the disease has a long latency period before symptoms appear, it is likely that many young adults with AIDS were actually infected with HIV as adolescents.

Although alcohol-related traffic fatalities for youth have declined, young people are still overrepresented in this area. In 1995 alone, more than 2,000 youth (ages 15 to 20) were killed in alcohol-related car crashes (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1997).

These limited examples illustrate the catastrophic health-related consequences of substance abuse among adolescents. Besides personal and family distress, additional healthcare costs and loss of future productivity place burdens on the community.

Mental health

Mental health problems such as depression, developmental lags, apathy, withdrawal, and other psychosocial dysfunctions frequently are linked to substance abuse among adolescents. Substance-abusing youth are at higher risk than nonusers for mental health problems, including depression, conduct problems, personality disorders, suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide, and suicide. Marijuana use, which is prevalent among youth, has been shown to interfere with short-term memory, learning, and psychomotor skills. Motivation and psychosexual/emotional development also may be influenced (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1992).


Substance-abusing youth often are alienated from and stigmatized by their peers. Adolescents using alcohol and other drugs also often disengage from school and community activities, depriving their peers and communities of the positive contributions they might otherwise have made.


In addition to personal adversities, the abuse of alcohol and other drugs by youth may result in family crises and jeopardize many aspects of family life, sometimes resulting in family dysfunction. Both siblings and parents are profoundly affected by alcohol- and drug-involved youth (Nowinski, 1990). Substance abuse can drain a family's financial and emotional resources (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1992).

Social and economic consequences

The social and economic costs related to youth substance abuse are high. They result from the financial losses and distress suffered by alcohol- and drug-related crime victims, increased burdens for the support of adolescents and young adults who are not able to become self-supporting, and greater demands for medical and other treatment services for these youth (Gropper, 1985).


There is an undeniable link between substance abuse and delinquency. Arrest, adjudication, and intervention by the juvenile justice system are eventual consequences for many youth engaged in alcohol and other drug use. It cannot be claimed that substance abuse causes delinquent behavior or delinquency causes alcohol and other drug use. However, the two behaviors are strongly correlated and often bring about school and family problems, involvement with negative peer groups, a lack of neighborhood social controls, and physical or sexual abuse (Hawkins et al., 1987; Wilson and Howell, 1993). Possession and use of alcohol and other drugs are illegal for all youth. Beyond that, however, there is strong evidence of an association between alcohol and other drug use and delinquent behavior of juveniles. Substance abuse is associated with both violent and income-generating crimes by youth. This increases fear among community residents and the demand for juvenile and criminal justice services, thus increasing the burden on these resources. Gangs, drug trafficking, prostitution, and growing numbers of youth homicides are among the social and criminal justice problems often linked to adolescent substance abuse.

The DUF study found the highest association between positive drug tests of male juvenile arrestees and their commission of drug-related crimes (e.g., sales, possession). However, a substantial rate of drug use also was found among youth who committed violent, property, and other crimes (National Institute of Justice, 1996). These data are depicted in figure 5.

Figure 5

Other data support the concern for drug-involved youth in the juvenile justice system. The Survey of Youth in Custody, 1987 (Beck, Kline, and Greenfeld, 1988) found that more than 39 percent of youth under age 18 were under the influence of drugs at the time of their current offense. More than 57 percent reported using a drug in the previous month. In another study of 113 delinquent youth in a State detention facility, 82 percent reported being heavy (daily) users of alcohol and other drugs just prior to admission to the facility, 14 percent were regular users (more than two times weekly), and 4 percent reported occasional use (DeFrancesco, 1996).

A study conducted in 1988 in Washington, D.C., found youth who sold and used drugs were more likely to commit crimes than those who only sold drugs or only used drugs. Heavy drug users were more likely to commit property crimes than nonusers, and youth who trafficked in drugs reported higher rates of crimes against persons. Youth in this sample were most likely to commit burglary or sell drugs while using or seeking to obtain drugs. About one-fourth of the youth also reported attacking another youth to obtain drugs. However, among the youth in this sample, the majority who committed crimes did not do so in connection with drugs (Altschuler and Brounstein, 1991). A breakdown of crimes that youth have committed to obtain drugs follows:

  • Drug selling: 36 percent.
  • Serious assault: 24 percent.
  • Burglary: 24 percent.
  • Robbery: 19 percent.

The 1996-97 National Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE) study (1997) found a significant association between crimes committed by adolescents and their use of alcohol and other drugs. Table 1 shows the percentage of 6th through 12th grade students who reported they had used various substances and had been involved in threatening or delinquent activities. The percentage of youth who were involved in these activities and had not used alcohol or other drugs was substantially lower.

Table 1

For those who work in the juvenile justice system, new data are constantly being reported, but the story is an old one. Juvenile justice professionals encounter daily the distress of youth, their families, and communities resulting from juvenile involvement in substance abuse and delinquent behavior. These professionals also experience the difficulties of trying to work successfully with these young people.

The projects described in the remainder of this Summary developed sound strategies for identifying and intervening with youth who were involved in illicit drug use and who encountered the juvenile justice system. The experiences and lessons learned by these projects can be used by other agencies to replicate or adapt similar programs to meet the needs of the youth they serve.

Drug Identification and Testing in the Juvenile Justice System May 1998