Marijuana use has increased among college students in recent years, surpassing tobacco as the primary inhalable substance of choice in that group for the first time, a new study has shown.
The Monitoring the Future report, annually compiled by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, included survey data from full-time college students about their drug and alcohol use. Under 6 percent of those surveyed said they used marijuana every day or at least 20 times in the previous 30 days. On the other hand, 5 percent of respondents said they used tobacco heavily, a 14 percentage point drop from 1999 figures.
Lead investigator Lloyd Johnson told the Associated Press that those figures, compiled in 2014, show signs of a culture shift, prompted by both absorption of messages about tobacco’s public health dangers and increasingly lax attitudes about marijuana use.
“It’s clear that for the past seven or eight years there has been an increase in marijuana use among the nation’s college students,” Johnston said. “And this largely parallels an increase we have been seeing among high school seniors.”
These findings come amid an increase in pot smoking among college students and speculation about the effects of marijuana on the young adult brain. An April 2014 study linked casual pot use to significant changes in the size and shape of two brain regions, amygdala and nucleus accumbens — both associated with anxiety and regulation of emotions. Though researchers acknowledged the need for more research, they discouraged nonchalant attitudes that can cultivate habitual use.
Even so, Sachin Patel, lead research and professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, told Psychology Today that those findings may explain why marijuana users say they partake to reduce anxiety. Subsequent studies about marijuana and anxiety designated marijuana as a possible treatment option for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental ailments.
College depression, which has become more common in the last 15 years, has been linked to smoking and substance abuse. For students on campus, many of whom may be away from home for the first time, financial stress and problems on campus can take a toll on one’s mental state, especially if they feel there’s no one with whom they can share their problems. Those feelings, unresolved, can result in suicide, now the leading cause of death among college students.
Though Patel and other researchers have acknowledged the need for more research about pot’s long-term effects and addictive properties, they said young people should reconsider their assumptions that smoking don’t negatively affect brain development. Institutional barriers however have precluded scientists from conducting serious research on marijuana’s public health drawbacks, particularly because of its Schedule 1 classification. In June, the Obama administration removed the Public Health Service’s review process for projects not funded by the federal government, giving medical marijuana advocates some hope that change is on the horizon.
“The two biggest hurdles to marijuana research have been the PHS review and NIDA’s monopoly on the supply of marijuana available for research purposes,” Riffle, director of federal policies for MPP, told the International Business Times earlier this year. “Now that one of those unnecessary barriers has been removed, we hope the second will undergo serious scrutiny.”
Those changes may be a shift in attitudes about marijuana, a result of its ubiquity in news and pop culture. Even with questions about its legality on the federal level, 19 states and the District of Columbia decriminalized pot possession. An increasing number of Americans also oppose harsh penalties related to the plant.
But parents and administrators may be relieved to know that young people not just relying on pot for therapy while on campus. Today, students are turning to professional help more than ever, with 9 out of 10 college administrators reporting an increase in the number of young people seeking mental health services. Additionally, as the recent edition of Monitoring the Future showed, half of the respondents said they haven’t used any illicit drugs in the past year.