420 Rally at University of Colorado, Boulder; photo via Zach Dischner
For decades, college campuses have been bastions for the cannabis community. Conceived as a space where young adults are able to experiment, grow, and shape their future selves, it’s no surprise that the smell of skunk has lingered above institutions of higher learning since the Summer of Love.
According to ABC News, new data from the University of Michigan indicates modern college students are lighting up more than Generation Xers ever did. Breaking down the latest data from the federally funded Monitoring The Future survey, researchers found that in both 2016 and 2017, undergraduate students consumed cannabis at a three-decade high, with 21% of coeds aged 19-22 reporting cannabis use in the past 30 days in 2017. That number is actually one percentage point lower than the same statistic in 2016, but remains higher than self-reported data from the 1980s and ‘90s.
In addition to students enrolled in secondary education, the survey consulted young adults from the same age range who were no longer in school, and found that cohort used cannabis slightly more frequently, with 23% reporting marijuana use at least once in the past month.
But while the academics at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research were quick to point out that expanding cannabis reform legislation and diminishing stigma around the plant could account for the generational increases in use, the study’s authors also added their own subjective attitudes about the controversial plant to their analysis, repeatedly referencing college drug use as “an epidemic.”
"Getting a foothold on the roles and responsibilities of adulthood may be all the more difficult for these one-in-eight noncollege youth who use marijuana on a daily or near daily basis,” John Schulenberg, principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future Panel Study, told ABC News. “As for college students, we know from our research and that of others that heavy marijuana use is associated with poor academic performance and dropping out of college."
Because cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I drug at the federal level, clinical research into the all-natural substance has been significantly hindered, with only preliminary, non-conclusive research published about potential marijuana-induced dangers. Similarly, any anecdotal evidence about rates of cannabis use rely on self-reporting, with responses arguably influenced by perceived social stigma.
In a 2015 research paper titled “The Academic Consequences of Marijuana use During College,” published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, authors from the University of Maryland studied marijuana use as a potential influence on decisions to drop out of high education, but made sure to note that both alcohol and mental health issues, combined with marijuana use, could be larger influences on academic performance.
“The mechanisms underlying the association between marijuana use and poor educational outcomes are most likely very complex and not completely understood,” Maryland researchers concluded.
While Schulenberg claimed that the recently published data was “worrisome,” the research didn’t mention the positive organizing, social justice activism, and entrepreneurial spirit found in college cannabis communities.
As marijuana legalization continues to sweep the nation, research into consumption habits and demographic tendencies will become increasingly useful for lawmakers, academics, and businesses alike, but without proper research into the plant itself, making assumptions and moral judgements about users will only hold back necessary progress.