Marijuana, alcohol, vaping: How much is really occurring on college campuses?

Washington State University study shows how peers may be influencing use, plus a key resource to fight abuse.
By: | May 23, 2022
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Colleges and universities may not be where students get their first exposure to alcohol or drugs, but they are certainly environments where their usage flourishes. Nearly three quarters of all students ages 18-23 drink, with a quarter of those reporting they’ve been drunk in the past month. Drug use is not as high overall, but marijuana use is growing, with more than a third of all students experimenting in some way with cannabis.

While it may be cool in a student’s eyes for an institution to be considered a party school, it can be a nightmare for college leaders trying to quell abuse or contend with emergencies, such as the occurrences of assaults or students becoming hospitalized because of alcohol poisoning. The federal government’s Campus Drug Prevention program has a number of resources to help institutions be more proactive, including a 156-page Strategic Guide for Preventing Drug Misuse.

The goal of campus-wide initiatives to tackle alcohol use is to protect populations and ensure successful outcomes. Campus Drug Prevention officials note that abuse can have significant impacts on retention and graduation rates, stop outs and times to completion, but are not being monitored or addressed closely enough.

“College is the ideal setting for innovative, campus-wide programming aimed at preventing and reducing drug use among college students, but these efforts remain few and far between,” officials say in their guidance, which offers institutions a framework with ideas such as assessments, capacity building, and creating a successful plan to stop abuse.

Researchers helping, too

Many campus researchers are performing their own studies that both track usage in their communities and their impacts on higher education. Washington State University associate professor Jennifer Duckworth, for example, recently published a study that showed the differences in drugs of choice for two-year and four-year students in the Seattle area, including their consumption of alcohol and cannabis.

Duckworth seemed to find a connection between peer impressions and use—at four-year institutions, students consume double the amount of alcohol that two-year students do, while community college students use twice as much marijuana. Why is that? She says it is because alcohol is seen as prevalent among peers at four-year schools, while two-year students believe the opposite is true.

“I expected differences in both alcohol and marijuana use among two- and four-year college students, but was surprised by the magnitude of the differences given that the subjects are the same ages,” said Duckworth, who works in the Department of Human Development. “If you think your peers are drinking more than they really are, that leads you to drink more. Two-year students are using marijuana more than four-year students, but they also think their peers are using it more than they probably are.”


More for UB: College marijuana use reached high in 2020, while alcohol fell by 6%


Duckworth said studying usage patterns among two-year students was a bit more complex because “they tend to have more variability in terms of age, work status, and they are more likely to be from underrepresented racial and/or ethnic minority groups. We know a lot more about four-year students, at least partly because most of the people doing the research are on four-year campuses.” She hopes to do further studies on the population in the future.

But one truly unique finding was that because students tracked themselves, were allowed confidentiality and were given a stipend to follow through with the study for a year, retention increased. It is unclear why that occurred, although having a financial component may have been key.

In the Washington State study, four-year students consumed more than seven drinks per week. Students at two-year colleges averaged eight days of cannabis use in a month. The National Institutes of Health reported in its annual Monitoring the Future study done for 2020 that marijuana use year over year among students had skyrocketed to 44%, posing a serious threat to colleges. That same study also showed that vaping cannabis among older teens also has increased by three times.

“Daily marijuana use is a clear health risk,” said John Schulenberg, lead investigator and researcher at the University of Michigan. “The brain is still developing in the early 20s, and as the Surgeon General and others have reported, the scientific evidence indicates that heavy marijuana use can be detrimental to cognitive functioning and mental health.”

Schulenberg noted that students, however, are likely not feeling those threats as public perception around marijuana use leans more to potential benefits than harmful side effects. As with Duckworth’s study, the Monitoring the Future work showed the influence of perception—with only around 20% of students seeing the potential threats, lowest in more than four decades. LSD use also has risen, with the same pattern—students largely don’t see the harm in them.