jump to navigation
Print    E-Mail   Share External link. Please review our Disclaimer 


“Individuals in this age group grapple with stress, expectations, relationships, and mental health needs, which singularly or collectively can contribute to substance misuse.” — Mike Graham-Squire, Drug Free Communities Manager at Neighborhood House in Seattle

Addressing Substance Misuse Transition-Age Youth Not Attending College

Addressing Substance Misuse Among Transition-Age Youth Not Attending College

Young adults ages 18 to 25, also defined as transition-age youth, are at high risk for substance misuse—particularly alcohol and marijuana use. Research shows that nonstudents are at a higher risk than college students of developing alcohol use disorder.[1] Nonstudents also were more likely to have used marijuana in the past month.[2]

To date, prevention efforts for this age group have been focused almost exclusively on those who attend a four-year college, creating a gap in prevention messaging and efforts when it comes to young adults who are taking different paths in their lives. SAMHSA has created the information on this page to help tackle alcohol and substance misuse among young adults who are exploring their futures outside of the college setting. These individuals may already be in the workforce, enrolled in community college, or in other occupational and educational roles.

There is tremendous opportunity for prevention professionals and others who interface with young adults—whether they are high school guidance counselors; workplace HR managers; medical providers; or those who work in shelters, intervention and juvenile justice centers, and job corps—to play a role in connecting young adults to facts about substance use and services that can help them make healthy choices as they enter adulthood.

Preventing substance use among transition-age youth and young adults means giving them the tools to manage stress in healthy ways that don’t impede their future life goals. Here are some approaches that work well with this age group. Start by:

  1. Having a conversation. Demonstrate that you care about their well-being, without judgment, and that you are a good source of information and can help them make informed decisions.
  2. Screening young adults by behavioral health professionals for potential substance use using the following tool: https://www.samhsa.gov/sbirt.
  3. Sharing what you know. Hearing actual accounts of young adults who have struggled with and overcome substance misuse problems can go a long way. Tell a peer-delivered story to demonstrate a safe space to talk. Use peer spokespeople. Include the problem, underlying issues or contributing factors, and offer solutions. Also, point to stories on social media or in the news to help illustrate why substance misuse leads to bad outcomes.
  4. Framing consequences in the short term and avoiding fear tactics. Research shows that long-term health and other consequences don’t resonate with this population[3] and fear tactics can backfire.[4] Avoid reinforcing negative messaging such as substance use as a rite of passage or as a result of peer pressure. 
  5. Offering alternatives. If young adults you know seem to be using substances out of boredom or an abundance of time, help connect them to activities that will enrich their lives, like volunteering or taking up a sport. Frame these activities as a healthy and fulfilling way to transition into adulthood.
  6. Partnering with other organizations to work together to address substance misuse among transition-age youth. For instance, health professionals can work with organizations providing youth services to direct them to the healthy activities referenced above.
  7. Connecting with parents to let them know they are still an important influence in their children’s lives and impact their decisions when it comes to substance use prevention even after they turn 18 and leave high school.[5] When youth have an unbiased support system at home, they are less likely to engage in harmful behaviors.
  8. Reflecting the language of transition-age youth. Identify and understand who they are in terms of diversity, education, culture, knowledge, and experiences so they are able to identify with the message. Be clear, concise, and use plain language that resonates. Do this by co-creating or pretesting materials with transition-age youth.
  9. Speaking to transition-age youth’s values. By connecting issues to their values (guiding principles that inform goals, decisions, behaviors, and disposition), they are more likely to listen. This could include values such as self-image, connections to peers, or need to express individuality.
  10. Demonstrating an understanding of and acknowledge stressors and challenges of being a young adult and offer solutions. Empower transition-age youth through action-oriented steps such as:
    • Help is available.
    • Preventing substance use is possible.
    • You can learn to manage the stressors of life without using substances.


Below you will find the latest information to aid your efforts in the marijuana use prevention landscape when it comes to transition-age youth and young adults.

Marijuana use is higher among youth who are not enrolled in a four-year college.

  • Marijuana use among transition-age youth and young adults who aren't attending a four-year college is more prevalent than in their peers who are in college. Youth not attending college full time reported daily marijuana use at more than double the rate (14 percent) compared to college students (5.6 percent).[6]
  • Transition-age youth and young adults also are more likely to experience a marijuana use disorder than other young adults.[7]

Marijuana use is still illegal everywhere for people under the age of 21, unless prescribed by a medical professional.

  • The marijuana landscape has changed dramatically in the past few years with legalization in some states.

Transition-age youth now have access to a wider variety of marijuana products that are more potent than in the past.

  • There are now new products that offer different ways of using marijuana—vaping, edibles, and tinctures—that transition-age youth are accessing.
  • Marijuana is also far more potent than it was decades ago; in the 90s, THC levels in marijuana were about 4 percent compared to 12 percent now.[8] And these new products can have THC concentrations of 95 percent.[9]

Marijuana use among transition-age youth can have negative health, social, and lifelong impacts.

  • With young adults’ brains developing until they are 25, marijuana use may harm the cognitive and mental health of transition-age youth.[10]
  • Risk of addiction increases with exposure to high concentrations of THC[11] and the younger the age of initiation. In the same vein, higher doses of THC can create anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis.[12]
  • The role played by marijuana in car crashes is often unclear because it can be detected for days or even weeks after intoxication and because people frequently combine it with alcohol use. But we do know that those involved in crashes with THC in their blood—particularly higher levels—are three to seven times more likely to be responsible for the incident than drivers who had not used drugs or alcohol.[13]


SAMHSA Resources

Find additional SAMHSA Products and Resources at the Prevention Technology Transfer Center (PTTC) Network.

For Professionals

For the Public

For Youth

Other Resources

Stay tuned for more information and additional resources that will be added to this page.

[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2021). Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed tables. Table 6.26A (REVISED). https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2020-nsduh-detailed-tables

[2] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2021). Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed tables. Table 6.24B (REVISED). https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2020-nsduh-detailed-tables

[3] Gerend, M. A., & Cullen, M. (2008). Effects of message framing and temporal context on college student drinking behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(4): 1167–1173). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103108000292

[4] SAMHSA’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies. (2015). Using Fear Messages and Scare Tactics in Substance Abuse Prevention Efforts. https://preventionactionalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/fear-messages-prevention-efforts.pdf

[5] Lipari, R. N. (2017). Exposure to substance use prevention messages among adolescents. The CBHSQ Report. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_3380/ShortReport-3380.html

[6] Patrick, M. E., Schulenberg, J. E., Miech, R. A., Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., & Bachman, J. G. (2022). Monitoring the Future Panel Study annual report: National data on substance use among adults ages 19 to 60, 1976–2021. Monitoring the Future Monograph Series. University of Michigan Institute for Social Research: Ann Arbor, MI. https://monitoringthefuture.org/results/publications/monographs/panel-study-annual-report-adults-1976-2021/

[7] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2022). Results from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed tables. Table 8.30B. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2021-nsduh-detailed-tables

[8] ElSohly, M. A., Mehmedic, Z., Foster, S., Gon, C., Chandra, S., & Church, J. C. (2016). Changes in Cannabis Potency Over the Last 2 Decades (1995–2014): Analysis of Current Data in the United States. Biological psychiatry, 79(7), 613–619. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4987131/

[9] Stuyt E. (2018). The Problem with the Current High Potency THC Marijuana from the Perspective of an Addiction Psychiatrist. Missouri Medicine, 115(6), 482–486. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6312155/

[10] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Cannabis (Marijuana) Research Report. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/what-are-marijuanas-long-term-effects-brain

[11] Freeman, T. P., & Winstock, A. R. (2015). Examining the profile of high-potency cannabis and its association with severity of cannabis dependence. Psychological Medicine, 45(15), 3181–3189. doi:10.1017/S0033291715001178

[12] Volkow, N. D., Compton, W. M., & Weiss, S. R. (2014). Adverse health effects of marijuana use. The New England Journal of Medicine, 371(9), 879. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMc1407928

[13] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Does marijuana use affect driving? https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/does-marijuana-use-affect-driving