According to the National Institute of Health, people have used cannabis for 3,000 years. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, recreational use of marijuana made its way to the United States. Smoking became slightly more socially acceptable after the hippies and cannabis surge of the 1960s.
Today, its usage is widespread, and marijuana is the most commonly used federally illegal drug in the United States — 48.2 million people reported consuming it at least once in 2019, representing 18% of Americans. Like the rest of America, college students are consuming cannabis at a rapidly growing rate — and possibly even faster. According to the 2020 Monitoring The Future panel study, 44% of college students reported using marijuana in the past year, the highest level reported since 1980.
Forty-four percent of college students smoking weed may seem unsurprising from a surface-level perspective, but that number has gone up 6% from when students were last polled in 2015. The study contains several different statistics that pinpoint college as the time when many students first try cannabis, underscored by the fact that similar levels of cannabis use have not been seen among 12th graders. Drug use among adolescents decreased significantly in the 2021 MTF panel study, following sharp increases between 2017 and 2019, while college cannabis statistics unwaveringly increased throughout the same period.
So, how do we make sense of the rapidly growing relationship between cannabis and college students? What are some of the possible reasons college students turn to marijuana in record numbers while college alcohol and cigarette consumption statistics are simultaneously declining? For example, one study found that factors like social distancing and less social support from friends — two symptoms of COVID-19 — contributed to a decrease in alcohol consumption for University of North Carolina first-year students.
54% of students used alcohol pre-pandemic, a percentage that fell to 46.2% mid-pandemic, indicating a shift away from alcohol for students at UNC. Still, the previously mentioned social factors didn’t result in a similar decrease in cannabis consumption for college students in nationwide polls.
I’m not a scientist, nor do I have empirical evidence to nail down the exact answer to these questions. Still, I’d like to theorize on the growing relationship between cannabis and college students as best I can — with my own experiences as a college student in mind.
One undeniable reason is the sheer increase in accessibility, as students in 18 states (one-third of the United States) now have legal access to cannabis for recreational use and can additionally buy from state-funded dispensaries. As of April 2022, 37 states have legalized the medical use of cannabis, each with varying criteria for its prescription. As more states legalize the substance for both medicinal and recreational use, students living in these states will have increased opportunities to consume what’s still considered a Schedule-I drug at the federal level without jumping through legal obstacles.
President Biden hasn’t delivered on his marijuana reform campaign promises yet, but Congress has recently made notable progress toward legislation that would allow even more access to cannabis for college students. The House passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) at the beginning of April by a 220-204 vote, which would legalize cannabis nationwide and eliminate criminal penalties for anyone who manufactures, distributes or sells the substance if the Senate also passes the bill, which is unlikely. Still, the growing momentum for the legalization of cannabis among lawmakers signals that even more accessibility for students is on the horizon.
Something directly related to the increase in cannabis consumption among college students that has seemingly flown under the radar is burnout. If you’re not familiar, burnout is an extended period of extreme fatigue and apathy that often results in a decline in academic performance, and the phenomenon has worsened throughout the pandemic. Ohio State recently conducted a survey and found that over 70% of its students felt burnt out and overwhelmed in April 2021 and noted a direct link to an increase in unhealthy coping habits like consuming alcohol and vaping.
Ohio State didn’t ask students about cannabis in their survey. Still, previously mentioned statistics allow one to infer that many students use the drug as a means to cope with school-related stress. Opinions vary on whether cannabis helps or hinders academic success, but the anxiety felt from burnout plays a vital role in driving college students to cannabis at a historic rate.
Although social distancing and spending less time with friends due to COVID-19 contributed to the decrease in alcohol consumption on college campuses, these two factors may function as an explanation for the uptick in cannabis consumption. Facing unparalleled periods of isolation for the first time with the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, the MTF statistics show that college students turned to cannabis to provide a little excitement in the otherwise dull reality of quarantine.
Under normal circumstances, when alcohol and social gatherings were a regular occurrence for the standard college student, there was no need to appreciate the solitary nature of smoking cannabis for the majority of those on college campuses. However, as lockdowns and surging cases swept the nation, many students turned to cannabis to pass the time and quell the boredom that quarantine presented. As one study confirms, many (including college students) saw COVID-19 as a window to either start or end their cannabis consumption.
Accessibility to cannabis, rising levels of burnout and the onset of a global pandemic all undoubtedly contributed to the historic rise in cannabis’ popularity on college campuses in 2020, and it’s impossible to guess which factor had more of an impact than others. As COVID-19 cases continue to gradually fall across the United States, it’s fair to wonder how differently cannabis statistics will look in future MTF studies and whether they will show a direct link between COVID-19 and increased cannabis consumption for students. Regardless, hopefully, we were able to make a little sense of the rapidly growing relationship between cannabis and college.