health | 11.14.2018

What effect is legal marijuana having on college students?

Adrian Daniel Schramm


Legalization of marijuana has been moving state to state with increasing momentum - and, to an increasing number of people in the United States, it feels long overdue: People have been smoking herb for centuries, it’s measurably less harmful than alcohol, and its legal punishments have been particularly harmful to black and hispanic communities in particular. 

But questions surrounding the larger societal effects that its legalization will have remain, especially regarding younger generations. One area of particular concern is the impact it will have on our college students.

University Attitude Toward Marijuana

The fact that marijuana is still illegal on a federal level has, by and large, the greatest impact on how marijuana is treated on college campuses. Afraid that disobeying federal law could get their federal funding pulled, the vast majority of educational institutions do not allow the use of marijuana on campus, regardless of its legality at the state level. Many colleges treat possession of drugs, including marijuana, or paraphernalia much more harshly than alcohol violations

Another reason that campuses are reluctant to change their treatment of marijuana use is that there is ample research suggesting that marijuana negatively impacts academic performance. Based on this research, University of Maryland Health Director David McBride released this statement.

“In my opinion, this university needs to do what we can from a policy and enforcement perspective to prevent students from using marijuana. Any other approach would contradict our mission to educate students.”

Many campus administrations across the country are in agreement with McBride on this particular subject.

In practice, lots of campuses are fairly lenient with benign drug offenses such as possession of a few grams of marijuana or a little pipe and a grinder. But many do not, thus the treatment of marijuana related disciplinary action is anything but consistent across different campuses or even within the same institution.

Universities are unlikely to make any drastic changes to their policies on marijuana unless it becomes legal at the federal level.

Impact on Academic Performance

It seems logical that increased use of marijuana is correlated with decreased academic performance. However, the evidence is conflicting.

The Higher Education Center says that although the scientific literature is young, more studies show that academic performance is hindered by marijuana than studies that show no effect. College dropout rate is predicted by marijuana use, as is poor academic performance in a number of studies.

According to a study by Washington State University, students with a 4.0 GPA were less likely to have used marijuana in the last 30 days than students with a 3.0 GPA, who were less likely to have used marijuana in the last 30 days than students with a 2.0 GPA.

Maryland’s David McBride has cited similar results from his university’s own school of public health.

However, a study performed by Colorado Mesa University found no significant difference in GPA between daily users of marijuana and non-users.

It must be noted that these studies only show correlation, not causation. In other words, we can’t be sure that marijuana makes students worse at school, only that students who use marijuana tend to do worse. It’s possible that students who do poorly in school just happen to smoke more marijuana and their marijuana use doesn’t actually impact their academic performance, although that does seem unlikely.

Relationship to alcohol, other drugs

The gateway drug argument has long been used by War on Drugs conservatives to suggest that one day a kid smokes a joint and the next he is a homeless tweaker tying a band around his arm in frantic search of a fresh vein in which to jab a heroin needle. 

This exaggerated, somewhat ridiculous scenario is has been disproven more than once. In fact, a government funded study performed in 1999 found that most kids try alcohol or tobacco before any other drugs, suggesting that those are, in fact, the real gateway drugs. This is an old study, though, and it’s possible that things have changed since then.

Beyond that, the view that using one substance inevitably leads to using another, more powerful substance was largely unfounded in the first place. Even more unfounded is the notion that removing the gateway drug eliminates the possibility that the individual will ever use "harder" drugs.

Research has also shown that marijuana poses fewer health risks than alcohol, with not a single documented fatal overdose of the drug having ever been recorded. It also does not inspire the same sort of reckless, promiscuous, or violent behavior that alcohol tends to bring out in many users.

The study conducted by Colorado Mesa University found a general decrease in the concomitant use of marijuana and alcohol, meaning that since the legalization of marijuana in Colorado fewer students are using marijuana at the same time or in the same environments as alcohol. 

However, they did find an exception in that those who reported binge-drinking also reported using cannabis at higher rates than other users (non-binge-drinkers) of alcohol.

Overall change in marijuana use

According to the study by Washington State University, the frequency of marijuana use, especially daily use, increased among students at WSU after Washington legalized marijuana. A peculiar aspect of these findings were that the change was strongest among females students, black students, hispanic students, and underage students. Hispanic students reported a 93% increase in use, which is almost double the number of hispanic students who used marijuana before legalization. The study was unable to draw any conclusions from this finding other than the possibility that these groups of students had not been truthful about their use pre-legalization for fear of getting in trouble and such fear has now been removed by legalization.

The future of marijuana on college campuses

Marijuana has been ubiquitous on college campuses since the 1960’s and it remains the most popular drug among college students, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. That probably isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Much like the rest of the country, many campus administrations are slowly warming to the idea that marijuana shouldn’t be punished as severely as other drugs. Let’s just hope that our college students can refrain from hitting the bong for a few hours so they can get to class.

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