Conducted by Oregon State University, the study concludes that states where marijuana was legalized by 2018, including Colorado, had a rise in occasional and frequent pot use by college students, who were 18 percent more likely to have used marijuana in the past thirty days than in states where marijuana is still illegal.
“Since we work in a state where recreational marijuana is legal, we saw a lot of changes over time such as dispensaries popping up,” says OSU doctoral candidate Zoe Alley, who helped lead the study. “And with all this change, we were curious to see how this affects college students.”
According to Alley, when college students reach legal drinking age, they tend to use alcohol more than any other substance. But in states where marijuana is legal, there’s a trend of turning to smoking rather than drinking.
“The barrier to access of alcohol is gone once you turn 21,” she explains. “People who would’ve started binge drinking once turning the legal age start using marijuana instead.”
The study didn’t fully explain why college students are turning more toward marijuana than alcohol, but Metropolitan State University of Denver Department of Human Services & Counseling professor Dr. Anthony Rivas has a few ideas. According to Rivas, it’s human nature to want to change reality, and substances such as alcohol and marijuana do just that. However, marijuana doesn’t come with a hangover the next day like alcohol, and students therefore feel more comfortable using it.
“People like to change reality, and when we find substances we agree with, we tend to stick with those things,” Rivas says. “Marijuana can distort reality, but people can go home, smoke a joint and feel fine the next day.”
Students have to weigh the pros and cons of using a certain substance, Rivas says. Students getting ready for finals could choose to binge-drink and have a hangover while taking an exam, or smoke a bowl with friends and still be able to take an exam without that infamous hangover headache.
Metro State is largely a commuter school in Denver, so there aren’t many reports on campus of students using marijuana, Rivas adds. But discussions are still held in classes about what marijuana use looks like, and why people begin to use it. However, Rivas says, there’s a big missing factor when teaching about substance use: moderation.
“It’s either abstinence, or go all the way. With college being the first time you get away from your origins and your beliefs are challenged, you tend to do things to fit in, whether that’s binge drinking or smoking marijuana. The big thing schools have to start doing is teaching students how to use these things safely and without going to the extreme,” Rivas says,
Further studies on college students' marijuana use are planned for the future at OSU, according to Alley, who believes the next step is looking into other trends associated with marijuana, such as how often someone uses and the social context around pot consumption.
“If people make a choice about using marijuana, they should get good information about it and make an informed decision,” she says.