Can experimenting with alcohol or drugs at a young age lead to addiction?

Howard J. Shaffer, PhD
Addiction Medicine
Unfortunately for young people, experimentation with objects of addiction early in life is more likely to lead to addiction than is experimentation at later stages. For example, results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reveal that youths who begin drinking at age 14 or younger are far more likely to become alcohol dependent or to abuse alcohol compared with people who first used alcohol when they were 21 or older. What's more, a significant proportion of young people are drinking. A 2010 survey looking at adolescent drug use found that 14% of eighth graders, 29% of 10th graders, and 41% of 12th graders admitted to drinking alcohol within 30 days of the survey.

Early experimentation with marijuana also increases the risk of subsequent substance dependence. Adults who used marijuana before age 15 were six times more likely to become dependent on an illicit drug than adults who first used marijuana at age 21 or older. In addition, among adults who first used marijuana before age 15, 62% reported cocaine use, 9% reported heroin use, and 54% reported using prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons at some point during their lives. By comparison, among marijuana users who reported first smoking the drug after age 20, about 16% used cocaine, 1% used heroin, and 21% used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons during their lives. Among those who had never used marijuana, 0.6% reported lifetime cocaine use, 0.1% reported lifetime heroin use, and 5.1% reported lifetime nonmedical prescription drug use.

Nine out of 10 Americans who meet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) criteria for substance abuse or dependence started smoking, drinking, or using other substances before age 18, according to a study released in 2011 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The report also found that starting to use an object of addiction earlier in life made addiction more likely. For example, one in four people who first used a psychoactive substance before age 18 became addicted, compared with one in 25 who started using after they turned 21.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.