Increasing Marijuana Consumption by College Students — Benefits or Just Side Effects?

The debate on marijuana — anywhere from whether it is a gateway substance to more addictive and stronger drugs such as cocaine or heroin to whether it should be legalized for just medicinal or even recreational use — has always been fierce.

With 19 states, two territories (Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands), and the District of Columbia legalized recreational marijuana, the debate and research on its effect on students have been growing in scale and numbers. As colleges are now returning to pre-Covid educational settings and teaching methods, changes the pandemic has brought on students’ marijuana consumption patterns are at the center of researchers’ attention to study.

For instance, boredom motives for marijuana use among young adults significantly increased during the pandemic, while celebration motives showed an opposite trend. This is perhaps due to the physical distancing and stay-at-home orders by the government, making students feel disconnected from their friends and family, with more spare time to utilize at their will. Yet, one of the main reasons for marijuana consumption remained the same as before: to feel “high,” or experience enhanced feelings.

Monitoring the Future, a nationwide survey on drug use conducted by the University of Michigan since 1975, reported that the annual prevalence of marijuana for college respondents was 44 percent in 2020. A different survey in 2006 showed that 98 percent out of 5,990 respondents incorrectly predicted that “students in general” consume marijuana at least once a year.

Although the study was done 16 years ago, it still provides a crude sense of how much students misperceive their peers’ marijuana use. Considering that when people think most others are doing something, the more they are likely to start doing the same thing, the students’ inflated conception of the drug use prevalence may indirectly increase the overall marijuana consumption, creating a vicious cycle.

While cannabidiol (CBD) is an essential component of medical marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is often more associated with recreational use of marijuana with its psychoactive component making the users feel “high.” Photo: Goodmoodfarms / Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Other than the prevalence of drug use, the potency of the substance significantly contributes to the seriousness of the problem. Cannabis potency is judged based on the concentration of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the percentage of which is frequently used to determine how strong of an effect the substance will have on the user.

Unfortunately, the concentration of THC — the psychoactive component that makes the users feel “high” — has continuously increased across the U.S. over the decades. While the average concentration in the 1970s was under two percent and about four percent in the mid-1990s, it quickly reached over 15 percent by 2014.

On the more extreme side, legal marijuana markets in the state of Washington commonly sell flower products for smoking with over 20 percent concentration of THC and over 60 percent for other forms of products, such as dabs or hash oil. Since some experts define high potency cannabis (HPC) as those containing over 10 percent concentration of THC, the products easily accessible in Washington state seem dangerous to consume.

Just as wise Confucius once said, “to go beyond is as wrong as to fall short,” the exceptionally high potency marijuana comes with health implications. Joint research by the University of Washington and Washington State University found that HPC can have lifelong mental health consequences, increasing the risk of developing psychotic disorders including but not limited to schizophrenia.

Furthermore, other researchers also reported that there is a correlation between frequent marijuana use and lower GPA. The correlation may be logically explained by something else; there could be a third factor such as high stress that contributes both to increased marijuana consumption and the lower GPA.

However, with numerous other research results, the correlation seems more likely to imply causation in this case. It has been repeatedly witnessed that there is a correlation between marijuana use and impaired attention and memory, which directly affect academic performance.

On May 7, 2017, Marijuana legalization supporters held a protest in South Minneapolis, Minnesota. The state currently only allows limited medical marijuana use. Yet, the scientific findings on the medicinal benefits of marijuana use are still far from conclusion. Photo: Tony Webster / Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

As for how long these impairments from cannabis use last, there are conflicting research results. While some say that “there were virtually no significant differences among the groups [of current heavy users, former heavy users, and control group]” after about 28 days of abstinence, some others say that they found significant impairment in selective attention and concentration even from cannabis users who had been abstinent for two years.

Meanwhile, there is a widespread belief among the general population that marijuana use helps treat anxiety and insomnia. However, not only is there not enough science backing the claim so far but some psychologists and researchers warn that cannabis consumption may, in fact, worsen the problems. The American Psychiatric Association made a statement in 2019, “There is no current scientific evidence that cannabis is in any way beneficial for the treatment of any psychiatric disorder. In contrast, current evidence supports, at minimum, a strong association of cannabis use with the onset of psychiatric disorders.”

Worse yet, there is preliminary evidence that cannabis use strongly correlates with an increased likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for those who have a history of trauma. The research result is especially worrisome for it found that the increased likelihood is found in all groups including the late quitting group.

College students and the larger young adult population are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of HPC, with a higher chance of developing cannabis use disorder (CUD) or addiction to marijuana. Until there is a sufficient amount of scientific research done on the benefits of marijuana consumption, it is highly recommended that students forgo occasional cannabis use, not to mention HPC.


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