According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 46.6% of teens have tried illicit drugs at least once by the time they are in 12th grade. High school drug culture is ever-evolving, whether due to the popularity of certain drugs or changes in the people using them. In recent years, substance use among 12- to 17-year-olds has generally been on the decline, according to Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend.
The first anonymous West High student source attributes the decline to a lack of accessibility to drugs while at home.
“During quarantine, everybody’s at home … and I assume your parents wouldn’t want to buy you [drugs],” they said.
The onset of the pandemic had drastic impacts on virtually every aspect of how people live. Among a flood of statistics, one data point has stood out: an increase in people experiencing mental health issues. In the context of drug usage, a CDC report found that 13.3% of adult survey respondents started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to the pandemic. Statistics among teens, however, tell a whole different story. Despite increased mental health concerns among teens, 2021 saw the largest decline in adolescent use of illicit drugs in 46 years.
“[The] data was actually really interesting over the past year with Covid … where you spend most of your time has changed as far as being in school around peers versus being at home,” said Andrea Weber, assistant director of addiction medicine at the University of Iowa.
Despite nationwide studies that indicate otherwise, some students at West have observed a local increase in drug use.
“I do know a lot of people that started smoking during the pandemic, which I’m not surprised by,” the second anonymous source said.
A third anonymous student also believes drug usage rose among peers during the pandemic due to the lack of structure throughout online school.
“It allowed me to smoke during the day when I wanted to,” they said. “I think a lot of people started during the pandemic … you’re bored at home; what else is there to do?”
National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow expressed uneasiness about the future of drug culture among teens in an interview with Time. According to Volkow, the downward trend in drug usage may reverse in the coming years due to easing pandemic restrictions and more frequent gatherings.
Despite the pandemic’s effects, other factors shape drug use in high school. The first anonymous source describes West’s drug culture as widespread and far-reaching.
“It’s all over the place,” they said. “There are people … literally everywhere I can think of. It’s not just exclusive to one group.”
As an athlete, the fourth anonymous source believes drug culture exists within athletics at West despite the possibility of athletes getting suspended from the team if they are found to be using drugs.
“The fact that wanting to do [drugs] can outweigh risking losing the sport that you like doing is kind of … crazy, even though I have taken that risk,” they said.
Some students bring their drug use into the school building. The fourth anonymous source has observed it in many places, including bathroom stalls and the parking lot. However, they avoid using drugs during the school day due to their concerns about focusing in class.
“I don’t like how it makes me feel because I just zone out, and I don’t get anything done,” they said.
The third anonymous student has occasionally left the building to get high.
“During lunchtimes or … when I [didn’t] need to use my open, I would go outside … and bring my pipe to school with me,” they said. “I’d smoke during lunchtime or AFT.”
If a student is caught partaking in drugs on school grounds, consequences vary on a case-by-case basis.
According to the 2021-2022 West High School student handbook, they may need to participate in a substance abuse rehabilitation program, be suspended, expelled, referred to a local police department or be required to comply with alternative courses of action that are agreed to by students and guardians.
Some teens are motivated to start using drugs despite the consequences in place. According to Sandstone Care, which offers drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, teens try drugs primarily due to peer pressure, mental health struggles, the desire to improve performance, experimentation and the wish to feel grown-up.
The first anonymous source turned to drugs to cope with losing people in their life.
“I started doing drugs because … I didn’t really know what to do at the time,” they said. “I didn’t want to do weed because it’d smell … so I started taking pills.”
With a growing prevalence of mental health disorders among young people, drugs can seem like a way out. The fourth anonymous source was sent to the emergency room after a marijuana overdose partially caused by mental health issues.
“I think I was in a bad place then mentally, so I did use [marijuana] sort of as an escape,” they said.
Some students try drugs simply out of curiosity.
“I have a friend who started doing pills just for the fun of it,” the first anonymous source said. “He got addicted to them, and now he takes [Xanax] during school. It’s pretty messed up.”
Peer pressure can also influence students to use drugs. A typical place that teens may encounter drug usage is at parties.
“If you go to a party, you’re going to see a lot of people [who] will usually bring some pills or alcohol or shrooms or acid or something like that,” the first anonymous source said. “You don’t want to be the odd one out, so you start doing drugs.”
The third anonymous source also attests to the popularity of drugs at parties.
“Almost every public party is going to have something; there has to be something to attract the party people, and typically, it’s drugs,” they said.
Party culture is enhanced by the fact that Iowa City is a college town.
“I would always go downtown with my friends and we would make our way into college parties,” the third anonymous source said. “There was one party that I was at where we were all inside and [a group of college students] said, ‘Let’s go outside and smoke.’”
The first anonymous source believes that proximity to the university and the party culture increases accessibility to illegal substances and alcohol.
“Here in Iowa City, drinking is everywhere. At parties, drugs and alcohol are everywhere,” they said. “You just have to find the right people.”
This availability helped establish a drug culture at West often subject to broader trends in drug popularity. For example, the increased interest in psychedelics within the scientific community over the past several years is reflected among students.
“Psychedelics have grown a lot,” the first anonymous source said. “A lot of people want to do … things that make [them] see stuff.”
From what the first anonymous source has observed, there seems to be an overall interest in new and unfamiliar substances among students at West.
“I used to deal drugs here at West and a lot of people want to do … exotic stuff. Like the new things,” they said.
They have also noticed a recent decrease in the number of students who vape.
“A lot of people don’t like to vape anymore,” they said. “During school, if I go to the bathroom, I’ll rarely see anyone vape … two years ago, it was a completely different story.”
One thing that has seemingly stayed consistent throughout the past few years is the popularity of marijuana.
“I haven’t seen a decline [in marijuana use] and I haven’t seen an increase, either,” the first anonymous source said. “It’s just easy to get. It’s cheap.”
Kristin Brack, the Student Advisory Center Coordinator at West High, also recognizes the prevalence of marijuana.
“Marijuana is a really, really big substance that’s very popular,” Brack said. “Since it is kind of close to being legalized, I think people just think that it’s okay to just go ahead and use it recreationally.”
Although recreational marijuana is not legal in Iowa, it is legal in 18 states. The first anonymous source also believes legalization in some states has caused students to feel more comfortable using marijuana.
“All of my friends have smoked weed,” they said. “They see that other states are accepting it so they think it’s fine. It’s just becoming a drug that we can all accept slowly into our lives.”