Recreational Drugs

Recreational  drugs  refer  to  substances  that  are not  used  by  athletes  for  the  purpose  of  enhancing  athletic  performance.  The  health-related  risks of such drugs are well known, and concern about such  risks,  fear  of  a  failed  drug  test,  and  performance-related concerns are reasons many athletes choose not to use them. Nonetheless, issues associated with recreational drug use among athletes are often expressed in the scientific and popular press.

Prevalence Rates

Several studies have compared athletes against non-athletes  regarding  prevalence  rates  of  recreational drug use, with athletes usually reporting somewhat less use. For example, rates of past-year and past-30-day marijuana use among U.S. college athletes are  approximately  23%  and  10%,  respectively, whereas rates among the general U.S. college student population are approximately 33% and 18%, respectively.  Similarly,  approximately  4%  of  the general college student population report past-year cocaine  use,  compared  to  approximately  2%  of college athletes. Studies among adolescent athletes across several countries have revealed a similar pattern  of  findings,  with  those  participating  in  sport less likely to use drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and psychedelics.  Few  studies  have  examined  recreational drug use among professional or other elite athletes,  but  the  existing  evidence  also  suggests lower prevalence rates compared with the general population. Researchers have not yet addressed the rates  of  recreational  drug  use  disorders  (i.e.,  substance abuse or dependence) among athletes.

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Reasons for Recreational Drug Use

Even though rates of recreational drug use among athletes tend to be relatively low, it is nonetheless important to understand why it is that some athletes use such substances. A significant number of athletes do use illicit recreational drugs, and it is a virtual certainty that some will eventually experience considerable negative consequences as a result of  their  drug  use.  Further,  many  sport  governing bodies  provide  severe  sanctions  for  documented recreational  drug  use,  so  athletes  who  engage in any recreational drug use may be putting their athletic careers at risk.

It is likely that much recreational drug use and/ or abuse among athletes can be explained by universal  risk  factors  such  as  poor  impulse  control, lack of alternative coping strategies, high sensitivity to the rewarding effects of recreational drugs, family history of substance abuse, genetic or biological risk factors, or an environmental context that promotes drug use. Over the years, scholars have speculated about sport-related risk factors for substance use, such as excessive stress associated with balancing  athletic  and  other  demands,  enhanced social opportunities associated with being an athlete,  and  individual  characteristics  that  promote both an attraction to sport and risk for substance use (e.g., high sensation seeking). It may also be the case  that  some  athletes  perceive  that  recreational drugs  provide  a  performance-enhancing  function (e.g.,  believing  marijuana  use  will  result  in  relaxation prior to a competition), which could increase the  likelihood  of  use.  To  date,  though,  research on  sport-specific  risk  factors  for  substance  use  is lacking, so the degree to which such factors do in fact impact an athlete’s decision to use recreational drugs is unknown.

Preventing and Treating Recreational Drug Use

Over  the  past  20  years,  a  number  of  intervention strategies have been shown to be effective at either preventing or reducing substance use. These strategies represent a diverse array of approaches, including the following:

  • Treatments focusing on facilitating the 12-step process
  • Cognitive behavioral treatments that seek to modify thoughts and behaviors that promote substance use
  • Motivational interviewing approaches that seek to resolve ambivalence about changing substance use behaviors
  • Contingency management treatments that provide incentives for avoiding substance use
  • Family-based therapy and prevention programs
  • Life-skills prevention programs that focus on assertiveness training and healthy coping strategies

Studies have not examined the efficacy of these types  of  programs  at  reducing  recreational  drug use  specifically  among  athletes.  Researchers  have shown that some of these programs are efficacious at  reducing  alcohol  use  among  athletes  and  may therefore  be  promising  strategies  for  impacting drug use as well. There is also evidence to suggest that  regular  drug  testing  with  subsequent  consequences for positive screens can have some impact at limiting substance use.

Education-only  approaches,  whose  primary goal involves enhancing the recipients’ knowledge regarding  the  dangers  of  drug  use,  is  a  strategy shown  to  be  ineffective  at  preventing  substance use.  Unfortunately,  this  is  the  most  commonly used “prevention” strategy in most sporting environments. For example, most U.S. college athletes are  mandated  to  receive  educational  information about alcohol and other drugs, and such programs are also commonly implemented at the youth sport level. It is unlikely that these education-only programs impact the substance use habits of the athletes who participate in them.


Although athletes tend to be less likely than others to use recreational illicit drugs, such use does occur among  athletes  and  can  result  in  significant  personal and athletics-related consequences. A number of  intervention  and  prevention  strategies  exist  for those  who  experience  problems  with  recreational drugs, although the effects of such strategies have rarely been assessed specifically among athletes.


  1. Dutra, L., Stathopoulou, G., Basen, S. L., Leyro, T. M., Powers, M. B., & Otto, M. W. (2008). A metaanalytic review for psychosocial interventions for substance use disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 179–187.
  2. Martens, M. P., Dams-O’Connor, K., & Kilmer, J. (2007). Alcohol and drug abuse among athletes: Prevalence, etiology, and interventions. In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp. 859–878). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  3. National Collegiate Athletic Association. (2012). National study of substance use trends among NCAA college student–athletes. Indianapolis, IN: Author. Retrieved from productdownloads/SAHS09.pdf
  4. Peretti-Watel, P., & Lorente, F. O. (2004). Cannabis use, sport practice and other leisure activities at the end of adolescence. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 73, 251–257.
  5. Thomas, J. O., Dunn, M., Swift, W., & Burns, L. (2010). Elite athletes’ perceptions of the effects of illicit drug use on athletic performance. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 20, 189–192.

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