As March Madness takes over our news feeds, college athletes are once again in the national spotlight. With this focused attention, these student athletes are often under extra pressure, especially when it comes to alcohol and drug use. Fortunately, a recent study from the NCAA has found some positive and promising findings about athletic substance abuse.


While alcohol consumption is extremely common among college students, excessive drinking among student athletes has significantly decreased over the past ten years, coming down from 55% to 42%. Excessive drinking is defined as five or more drinks in a sitting for males, and four or more drinks in a sitting for females.

 Marijuana Use

The NCAA study found that student athletes are much less likely to engage in marijuana use than non-athletes. Only 25% of student athletes reported using marijuana in the last year compared to about 33% of the general student population. However, marijuana use was reported higher in states where recreational or medical marijuana-use is legal (39% vs. 26% in states where it is not legal).

 Prescription Drugs

Prescription pain medication use is down from recent years: 11% reported using narcotics this year as opposed to 18% in 2013. Non-prescription use was also down from 6% to 3%.

However, ADHD medication use is on the rise. Nearly 15% of student athletes report using stimulants — 7% with a prescription and 8% without a prescription. Additionally, 6% of student athletes report misusing ADHD prescription stimulants.

Tobacco and Nicotine Use

The most frequently smoked tobacco products are cigars (17%), cigarettes (11%), and hookah (10%). Cigarette use is lower among student athletes than non-athletes. And while the number is probably higher now due to its rise in popularity, only 8% of athletes reported vaping.

Why the Changes?

For the most part, the numbers for substance use are going down. This can be attributed to drug testing and the resulting penalties, but also to students making smarter choices for their health. By having fair and appropriate policy and educating their students, colleges can continue to hope to see a decline in substance abuse in their athletes.

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This article has been modified from the original post that appeared on March 24th, 2017. The data has been updated to reflect the most recent findings from research conducted by the June 2018 NCAA National Study on Substance Use Habits of College Student-Athletes.