Safe Substance Use in College

With substance use more common, common sense about using is more important.

Posted Jul 13, 2020

 Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

In college, living away from home, a greater array of substances becomes more readily available as youthful use becomes more common in today's drug-filled world. That said, a significant percentage of young people elect not to use.

What is a substance?

By substance, I mean a mood or mind-altering (psychoactive) chemical that is recreationally taken for psychological self-management to alter one’s emotional or mental state.

Arriving in college, most young people have elected some degree of use of the big three—nicotine (a stimulant), alcohol (a depressant), and marijuana (a hallucinogen). 

A substance, like any drug, is just a poison with a purpose, always risky because intended good effects can also have unwelcome bad effects, varying from person to person, so it's always a gamble.

Why use?

People use for freedom:

  • Freedom for relaxation, to enjoy companionship, comfort, confidence, unwinding, release, and fun
  • Freedom from stress, to escape from suffering, pressure, tension, anxiety, insecurity, self-consciousness, and worry

Use and emotion

While emotions are good advisors (part of one’s affective awareness system that senses when something important is happening in one’s inner or outer world of experience), they can be very bad advisors for what to say and how to act. 

For example:

  • Anger can counsel to retaliate/attack.
  • Fear can counsel to run away/give in.
  • Frustration can counsel to force/compel.
  • Impulsiveness can favor rashness over restraint.

The more one uses a substance, the less that judgment and the more that emotion may influence one’s decision-making. “Thinking” with one’s feelings increasingly takes over. Substance use empowers your emotional side as rational sobriety is lost.

Risks to beware

Consider eight risks that can threaten adolescent lives: social violence, accidental injury, school failure, illegal activities, sexual misadventures, suicidal despondency, dangerous daring, and substance use. Moderate or eliminate the last, substance use, and the risks of the other seven go down. This is why the safest path through adolescence is substance-free.

Lifestyle stress in college

Far from being a carefree time, the college age coincides with the last and most challenging stage of adolescence, Trial Independence (ages 18 - 23), when young people are stepping off more on their own. Separated from family structure, many students experience lifestyle stress. Some of the components are: sleep derivation from late night living, procrastinating with commitments, indebtedness from over-spending, loneliness from loss of what is familiar, social insecurity in a new situation, poor nutrition and health maintenance, future direction anxieties, temptations of Internet escape, pressure to meet more responsibilities, and low esteem from feeling incompetent. On all counts, this stress can make students more vulnerable to the escape and sedation offered by substance use.


Denial is the enemy hiding from what's in plain sight, from admitting when substance use has become endangering.

  • "Everybody does it."
  • “I don’t have a problem.”
  • “It won’t happen again.”
  • “It’s no big deal.”
  • “I can handle it.”
  • “I can quit any time I want.”

Why deny? Because preserving continued use has now become a priority as the freedom to use matters more than admitting the costs of use.

Assessing one’s level of use

Consider six progressively serious levels of use, from least to most dangerous.

1. Experimental use: trying a substance out of curiosity and deciding not to use it again -- like seeing what the experience is like.

2. Recreational use: repeatedly using for pleasure, in moderation, with no harm to self or others done -- like enhancing social enjoyment with friends.

3. Accidental excess: unknowingly using too much, suffering from unexpected painful consequences, and not repeating -- like unanticipated using too much too fast to ill effect..

4. Intentional excess: knowingly seeking excess (becoming drunk or wasted) for the sense of freedom that overindulgence can bring -- like deliberate binge drinking.

5. Abusive use: consumption often leads to acceptance of self-endangering or socially harmful behavior under the influence -- like acting out and blacking out.

6. Addictive use: the pain of withdrawal coupled with craving and compulsion to create a reliance on a self-destructive substance to survive -- like feeling not being able to quit.

While no level of use is without risk, if operating on any of the last three levels, get an outside assessment of one’s use.

Strategies for safe use

What follows are a few suggestions that can support safe use.

  • Make use intentional, not automatic.
  • Make use a free personal choice and not socially pressured.
  • Don’t use to keep up with or compete with other people’s use.
  • Use in the company of friends, not strangers.
  • Use it because you want to, not because you need to.
  • Whatever you are using, keep the dose low, and go slow.
  • Know why you are using; have a reason.
  • Plan your use and keep to the plan.
  • Don’t use and drive, and don’t be driven by someone using.
  • Stick to a single substance when using.
  • Use for enjoyment, not to medicate discomfort.
  • Use so that looking back on the use, you have no regrets.
  • Curfew your use—don’t use it after midnight.
  • Don’t use to be “grownup.”
  • Afterward, soberly evaluate each episode of use: Was it safe?

What to do

Keep substance use safe and enjoyable. If you can’t use without losing rational sobriety to emotional urgency and endangering yourself, then consider modifying your use or getting help if you are not able to quit.

If you need help stopping your use, there are assisted abstinence programs, like the 12-step AA kind, that offer group support for sober living, and there are out-patient and in-patient treatment programs that provide therapeutic understanding to break free from substance dependency.