More students see marijuana as safe, creating downstream effects on college campuses
A majority of college administrators in a new survey say that more students believe marijuana to be “safe,” drawing concern that changing national attitudes about marijuana might have downstream effects on college campuses. Administrators say the number of students with marijuana-related problems has either increased (37 percent) or stayed the same (32 percent), while almost none say such problems have lessened. And while they report a variety of negative impacts of marijuana use, and acknowledge the need to address the problem, they are also dealing with gaps in information and policy.
These are the main findings of a groundbreaking national survey of higher education officials by the Mary Christie Foundation and the Hazelden/Betty Ford Foundation in conjunction with the National Association of System Heads (NASH). The survey of 744 professionals in the fields of academic affairs, student affairs, and student health was conducted by The MassINC Polling Group and released at a national forum on college student substance use at the University of Maryland.
There is broad consensus among administrators that colleges can and should implement strategies to reduce marijuana use among college students, but relatively few administrators think their own campuses are putting much emphasis on the issue. Barriers to tackling the problem include lack of information about effective approaches, and limited coordination and training. There is also more awareness of the problem among officials on the front lines compared to those in academic affairs or administrative roles.
“This survey underscores what many of us have been worried about: although data show that consistent marijuana use is a serious threat to students’ wellbeing and academic performance, there is a lack of urgency to address the problem in meaningful ways,” said Robert Caret, Chancellor of the University System of Maryland, and Vice Chairman of the Mary Christie Foundation. “While is it encouraging that administrators see a role for colleges in addressing this issue, we need more active leadership to share information and coordinate the response.”
Public health experts have long warned that regular marijuana use among college students can lead to impaired memory, lack of motivation (skipped classes), and problems with information processing and executive functioning. Marijuana use significantly overlaps with excessive drinking and other substance use rather than being a substitute and is associated with mental health problems and an increased risk for psychosis among vulnerable individuals. The survey demonstrated significant knowledge gaps on these issues among many college administrators, but the need for training to learn more was clearly acknowledged.
Between 2014 and 2016, annual prevalence of marijuana use among college students increased by 14 percent. The perception of personal harm caused by regular marijuana smoking among 18-22 year olds has decreased from about 58 percent in 2000 to about 33 percent in 2015.
Meanwhile, marijuana legalization for medical and recreational use is becoming more widespread at the state level as public opinion continues a decades-long shift toward favoring legalization.
“Colleges are finding themselves on the front lines of this shift in attitudes and are playing catch up, in terms of education and training, as the problem continues to grow,” said Nick Motu, Vice President, Institute for Recovery Advocacy, the Hazelden/Betty Ford Foundation.
Among the key findings:
Seven in 10 administrators said that the number of students with marijuana-related problems on campus had either increased (37 percent) or stayed the same (32 percent) over the past three years. A majority (54 percent) of respondents believe the number of students who perceive marijuana to be safe has increased over the past three years.
A majority (55 percent) report marijuana use in college residence hall; 41 percent have observed academic problems related to marijuana use, and 36 percent have seen student mental health issues. Sixty-three percent agreed that students who use marijuana are more academically disengaged than non-users.
Eight in 10 (79 percent) believe college campuses should implement policies and programs to effectively reduce marijuana among college students, but only a third think their campus is putting a great deal (5 percent) or a fair amount (28 percent) of emphasis on preventing marijuana use right now.
Majorities think that a lack of resources, coordination and information are barriers to successful marijuana prevention and enforcement on campus. Student opposition is also seen as a concern.
There is a large gap in knowledge and perception of the issue between administrators on the front lines of combating substance abuse (health and wellness, prevention, residential life, and campus safety) and those a step removed (academic and student affairs). Majorities of the first group think that marijuana use is a serious problem on their campuses, while majorities of the latter group think it is not.
One way to address this gap could be to improve training and information sharing. Majorities of all types of administrators are interested in receiving training on how to handle various aspects of marijuana use among students, including impacts on student health and well-being and academic success.
Administrations say marijuana is not treated as seriously as alcohol. Screening for marijuana use is less common than screening for alcohol, and administrators are split on whether marijuana cause more academic problems than drinking, and whether marijuana users also drink to excess.
Experts are urging college presidents to collect more regular data regarding the scope and consequences of student marijuana use and utilize evidence-based public health approaches to intervention. They are also calling for better coordination among college departments and top-down communication that puts all student advocates on the same page.
“The primary mission of every institution of higher education is to promote student success” said Dr. Amelia Arria, Director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
“These new data from the unique vantage point of college administrators indicates that marijuana use is seen as a barrier to student achievement. Therefore, leaders of these institutions should intensify their efforts to develop comprehensive, scientifically-informed solutions to reduce student substance use.”
The new survey was released in October at the national “College Substance Use: New Solutions to a Perennial Problem” forum at the University of Maryland, College Park. National leaders in higher education, policymaking and substance use prevention and treatment convened to discuss the latest trends, challenges and innovations in preventing and addressing substance use on America’s college campuses.