In 2020, marijuana use among college students returned to levels not seen since the 1980s. That’s according to Monitoring the Future – an annual survey that looks at drug and alcohol use among America’s young people. Jason R. Kilmer and Christine M. Lee from the University of Washington School of Medicine explain some reasons behind this trend as well as its consequences.
Why is marijuana so popular among college students as of late?
Various research has shown that people use marijuana to feel the high, experience different emotions and sensations, connect with others socially or cope with certain feelings.
Many young adults turned to marijuana for help during the pandemic, with some using it for celebratory reasons while others smoked due to boredom from physical distancing mandates. However, among the main reasons people use marijuana before and during the pandemic alike are feelings of enjoyment or simply seeking a high.
We do not know how big of an impact these changing reasons for using marijuana will have, or if the trends seen during the pandemic will carry on post-virus.
How many college students are actually using cannabis?
With 18 states legalizing cannabis for non-medical or “recreational” purposes, access to marijuana has increased. However, this does not mean that every college student uses it; in fact, approximately half of students do not report any use. The University of Michigan conducts an annual survey called Monitoring the Future which questions students about their drug habits. According to these reports from the past three years between 43%-44% of surveyed college aged adults have reported using cannabis at least once in the past year. Keep this in mind–when people think that “everyone” is doing something, they’re more likely to do it themselves or keep doing it. This is significant because research has confirmed this idea.
In contrast to any use in the past year, researchers usually examine past month use as an indication of current use. Since approximately 25% of college students say they have used it in the last month, this suggests that three-quarters of students do not report using marijuana recently, and refraining from marijuana is actually the most popular behavior.
How does smoking weed affect academic performance?
Though some college students believe that marijuana is safe to use, research suggests otherwise. This is especially true for high potency cannabis that can be found in legal and medical states.
Published research indicates that college students who use cannabis frequently tend to have lower GPAs, report skipping more classes and take longer to graduate.
The main way that marijuana use decreases academic performance is by impairing attention and memory. This relationship has been observed for many years, especially in college students.
If you abstain from marijuana, your cognitive abilities will gradually improve according to studies that follow participants. The duration of the effects depends on how often someone uses and what type or potency of marijuana they use; however, it is more likely for those who use frequently to experience challenges with attention, memory and other cognitive abilities.
According to an August 2021 article about recommended guidelines for safer cannabis use, if you notice your thinking or memory has become impaired after using cannabis, it may be time to take a break or at least consume less of it, and/or choose strains with lower THC levels.
Are there any academic or educational benefits?
We’ve had numerous conversations with college students and have discovered that those who usually smoke marijuana say they can’t sit still or feel restless and anxious when not using the drug. Some of these students might think smoking is actually “helping” them in some way.
The anxiety and restlessness experienced by some when they don’t use marijuana may actually be symptoms of withdrawal. These could also be signs of addiction to cannabis, or what is called a cannabis use disorder. In other words, students might feel like they’re less anxious or restless when they resume using marijuana, but they’re really just numbing the withdrawal symptoms.
To our knowledge, there are no studies that suggest any academic or educational benefits to using marijuana.
Are we forgetting anything?
Science has not been able to keep pace with the rapidly changing cannabis market. THC, the cannabinoid typically associated with marijuana’s “high,” is better studied than most others. In America, 1970s THC concentrations averaged under 2%. This number rose to 3% in the ’80s, 4% by mid-’90s–and climbed almost 15% by 2018.
In today’s world, we are constantly seeing higher THC levels in many legal markets. For example, did you know that in Washington state, the average Concentration of THC in flower products is 20%? And that’s not even factoring in dabs, hash oil and other products which routinely exceed 60%!
Any cannabis with a THC level above 10% is considered high potency. The use of high potency cannabis has been linked to increased chances of developing marijuana use disorder and negative mental health outcomes.
Although some people might not consider marijuana use risky, recent studies have revealed that cannabis use may in fact increase harms and risks for users, especially young people. For college students specifically, these issues can manifest as difficulty concentrating or paying attention, feeling antisocial or paranoid.