College poses increasing risk for trying marijuana

For years going to college has put students at somewhat higher risk of trying marijuana, compared with age peers not in college. Richard Miech and colleagues at YSI show that this risk has more than doubled in the last 4 years. Findings are based on Monitoring the Future surveys of 19 to 22 year olds who had not used marijuana by 12th grade.


From 1991 to 2012, the odds of starting to use marijuana was higher for college students than their non-attending age peers by 17 to 22 percent. In 2013, the year after two US states legalized recreational use of marijuana, the risk increased to 31 percent. By 2014 the risk was 41 percent higher for college students and by 2015 college students were 51 percent more likely to have used marijuana in the past year than their age peers not in college.



The main concern here is the toll of heavy marijuana use. A percentage of those who try marijuana start to use it more regularly and a percentage of these use heavily and/or become dependent. The potential toll of heavy use includes lower educational attainment, respiratory disease, permanent neuropsychological damage, and greater risk of using other drugs (with their own potentials for harm).


In the 1960s the increases in marijuana use started largely on college campuses and can still be found in the baby boomer population. As Miech states, “the level of marijuana use that a cohort develops by young adulthood follows it as it ages.”

Photo credit: Carola Carlier, University of Michigan



Polls now show that a majority in the US support legal use of marijuana for adults. Research has shown that marijuana attitudes strongly predict use and that college students are uniquely sensitive to attitudes about marijuana use. Given greater acceptance of recreational marijuana use and perception that marijuana use is safe and state-sanctioned, the authors caution that the current trend in rising risk for college students may continue and grow stronger.


The Influence of College Attendance on Risk for Marijuana Initiation in the United States: 1977 to 2015 is published in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health.


Monitoring the Future is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.