Marijuana use by college students hit a 35-year high, according to a study released last Tuesday.
The annual Monitoring the Future panel study, a joint effort by researchers at the University’s Institute for Social Research, found that, in 2018, 43 percent of full-time college students said they used marijuana at least once in the previous year, while one in four said they had used it in the last 30 days. The national survey also showed that binge drinking and other types of illicit drug use had decreased among college students.
The study surveyed 1,400 adults age 19 to 22, including 900 who were full-time college students and approximately 500 non-college youth. Principal investigator John Schulenberg put it bluntly: He noted that prevalence levels for marijuana use have not been this high for three-and-a-half decades, when 45 percent of full-time college students in 1983 said they had used marijuana in the last 12 months. That same year, 26 percent said they had used marijuana at least once in the last 30 days.
Schulenberg also noted the dramatic increase in vaping nicotine and marijuana among college students, particularly among the percentage who said they had done so at least once in the previous year.
“For both of those, annual use increased,” Schulenberg said. “Both of those doubled or more than doubled in just one year, and we hardly ever see that happen as we track substance use.”
Among college students, the 30-day prevalence of vaping marijuana rose from 5.2 percent in 2017 to 10.9 percent in 2018. Vaping nicotine increased as well, with 30-day prevalence going from 6.1 percent in 2017 to 15.5 percent in 2018 in “one of the largest one-year proportional increases for any substance over the past 40 years.”
Vaping nicotine also increased among non-college respondents, going from 7.9 percent in 2017 to 12.5 percent in 2018. Schulenberg said it was rare to see higher nicotine use among college students compared to non-college youth, adding that people’s perception of harm tended to impact usage levels. Historically, according to Schulenberg, when the survey recorded higher levels of perceived harm associated with using a substance, prevalence levels tended to be lower.
“And it depends how you think about it, but people risking their health is bad,” Schulenberg said. “The good news is, for example, binge drinking among college students is at a record low. That’s for the first time ever below 30 percent, so there’s a significant drop, just in the past year in binge drinking among college students.”
LSA senior Eric Terbush is a member of Green Wolverine, a student organization that promotes knowledge of the legal aspects of the cannabis industry. Terbush said while the increase in cannabis consumption among college students was statistically significant, it should be considered alongside the “displacement of alcohol consumption.”
“I think that overall ease of access to cannabis, increased interest in personal health and perceptions of cannabis’s safety are all key elements in the increase in consumption among college-age demographics,” Terbush said. “The real question is if this displacement is an overall net positive or negative on student health. While alcohol has a measurable death toll, the social costs of cannabis are much more opaque. I think this study overall confirms longer trends in substance abuse.”
Schulenberg said researchers were still trying to figure out if the decrease in binge drinking was associated with the increased use of other substances like marijuana.
“Scientists are asking that more and more,” Schulenberg said. “They call it substitution. It’s, ‘OK, well, they're going to get high on something,’ so, first they’ll want to use something that’s readily available, and basically, marijuana is always readily available. Perhaps there’s more opportunity to use it, and perhaps the perception is it’s not such a big deal, and maybe people are substituting. The research is not there yet, so we don't know, but it’s definitely a good hypothesis.”
L.J. Horowitz, Green Wolverine President and Kinesiology senior, said increased use of marijuana should be viewed as beneficial.
“The increase in marijuana use among college students should be noted as a positive for both the cannabis industry and society as a whole,” Horowitz said. “It is imperative for readers to know that the report, more importantly, indicates a significant drop in abuse of other illicit drugs — alcohol and opiates — due to using cannabis as a substitute.”
Schulenberg added that the study also found a decrease in reported usage of narcotics other than heroin, saying that public health efforts to combat the opioid epidemic may prove effective in curbing other addiction crises.
“We’re seeing declines in that among, not just college students, but also same-age people who are not in college, and that's great news,” Schulenberg said. “I mean, these can be horrible drugs, so what I want to say is that public health campaigns, getting information out, can turn things around. We can be proactive and turn things around, and I think that applies to the vaping.”