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Commentary: Taking a Closer Look at College Marijuana Use


Parents, college students, college officials and other policy makers: take heed. Recent findings from the College Life Study (CLS) may be the first to indicate that students who smoke marijuana during college may be risking their longer-term health, particularly if they increase their marijuana use during the college years or continue a heavy use pattern.

Amelia Arria, PhD, Principal Investigator of the CLS and co-author of the study, stressed the importance of finding out more. “These findings need to be examined in other college (and non-college) samples of young people,” she said. “Rather than assuming that marijuana use during college is simply a ‘rite of passage,’ we need to consider possible impacts on long-term physical and mental health and on health care utilization,” she explained.

Based on how often they used marijuana over six years, the researchers first divided the college students in this sample into two categories: users and non- or rarely-using students. Most (71.5%) did not use marijuana (or used only rarely). The 29.5% who did use were then sub-divided into five groups based on the onset, frequency, and progression of their marijuana use.

Analysis indicated that all marijuana using students—except those who rarely used—were at risk for several adverse health outcomes, including injury, illness,and emotional problems bad enough to interfere with day-to-day tasks; poorer overall health (self-reported); more symptoms of psychiatric problems; lower quality of life (health-related); and, three years after college, increased service use for physical and mental health problems. Non-users fared significantly better than most of the using groups. Students who were chronic users or whose use increased beginning in year three of college had the worst health outcomes.

A major strength of the study is that it takes into account health at baseline and a number of other variables including alcohol and tobacco use over time. No data were available to quantify the costs of these problems, but the findings should be of interest to policymakers and others who are concerned about the rising costs of health care services.

Stressing again that the possible link between marijuana use and adverse health outcomes needs more study, Arria went on to say that even modest differences in health outcomes should be a wake-up call for the students themselves as well as their parents. “For this (growing) subset of college-bound adolescents who use marijuana, college may be an opportune time and place to intervene before problems escalate,” she said. “Colleges should consider using assessment tools to spot trouble and do something about it—through college health centers and academic assistance programs,” she added.

The writer is Principal Investigator of the College Life Study and Director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, Department of Family Science. She is also Scientific Director of the Parents Translational Research Center at the Treatment Research Institute.

12 Responses to this article

  1. Barry Williams / July 24, 2012 at 5:28 am

    I want clarify, I have used pot copiously and then have not used it all. Both for years in each state intermittently. I have also used many other drugs but only briefly. I did have a long term affinity for hallucinogens especially psilocybin mushrooms. I never tried injected drugs.

    Drug use is self-limiting with those that overdo it burning out or dying. I think those that overuse any drug were pretty much destined to do so and it was only a matter of time until it happened. Just like being addicted to food, sex or even exercise, drug addiction defies all efforts to eradicate it or predict it.

  2. Barry Williams / July 24, 2012 at 5:12 am

    The question that goes unanswered for me is which came first. Was it the mental disease or the drug addiction? To say that those students studied became mentally impaired in some way AFTER using marijuana excessively is a bit of a reach for me.

    I started using marijuana copiously at about 14 or so (I am 59 now). The main problem I experienced was laziness and a certain indifference about the things that bored me before. Prominently, I was even more dissatisfied with school. I was bored because I got it so fast and all of the repetition sapped me of my drive.

    I believe that pot is the lesser of all of the drug “evils”. Alcohol is far more destructive and dangerous in my opinion. Prohibition is very dangerous because it gives rise to “substitutes” which are very dangerous and even down right deadly.

    A 3-year old California child eats a pile of his grandma’s medicinal pot brownies. He is found comatose and he is taken to the hospital. After he processes the pot, he goes home evidently none the worse for the wear. Had it been her wine or even cigarettes I fear the outcome would likely not have been so good.

    We need to be honest in recognizing that humans crave altered reality among other pleasures of experience. You did it as a child as did I and likely every child: spinning until you fall down and then laughing at the world as it spun around you.

    We need to address our inability to deal with being human. We need to understand that sex is natural and taking drugs is too. Humans have a long recorded history of both.

  3. Avatar of JoshH
    JoshH / July 12, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    (Analysis indicated that all marijuana using students—except those who rarely used—were at risk for several adverse health outcomes, including injury, illness,and emotional problems bad enough to interfere with day-to-day tasks; poorer overall health (self-reported); more symptoms of psychiatric problems; lower quality of life (health-related); and, three years after college, increased service use for physical and mental health problems. Non-users fared significantly better than most of the using groups. Students who were chronic users or whose use increased beginning in year three of college had the worst health outcomes.).

    Injury… Illness… Emotional problems, I don’t know for sure but this sounds a lot like everyone on earth at some point and I’m sure MJ is not the cause. The only injury I have gotten from smoking MJ was a little reding in the eyes and maybe ate to much. OH I burnt myself with a roach once. I haven’t been sick for a very long time even when everyone else gets sick. Maybe we should look into the possibility that MJ fights more than just cancer.

    No than smoke some weed and chill out.
    Also don’t legalize it just decriminalize it a lot.

  4. Avatar of Jimbo
    Jimbo / July 5, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Regarding Fred C’s comments, I smoked mj during my military service and later continued its use during my higher education. I graduated college magna cum laude and graduate school with disctinction. I never had a problem with apathy (in any aspects of my life) and wonder how you can necessarily blame your mj use for that.

  5. Perry Kaplan / June 29, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Once again, this website has taken a sober, cautiously-worded conclusion from a single piece of research and blown it up into a panic for its own propagande purposes. This study was not definitive–even the author called for further investigation of its conclusions. Further, there was no discussion of the possible confounding variables–even though the author is clear that this was not a randomized control group study design. In other words, while the statement that marijuana causes adverse health impacts later in life may be suggested by the data, it is far from a conclusive finding. Moreover, as the previous commenters have pointed out, even if the findings prove to be true, prohibition is unlikely to be the best answer.

  6. Jillian Galloway / June 27, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    I’m confused about where the article says “students who smoke marijuana during college..”. How can students smoke marijuana during college when marijuana’s illegal? Are you saying that the prohibition doesn’t work?

    If the prohibition doesn’t work then we have to end it NOW because we could make people a lot safer by legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana like beer and wine! Allowing stores to sell legally-grown marijuana to adults at prices low enough to prevent illegal competition will eliminate drug dealers from our streets, just as the same policy eliminated bootleggers from our streets seventy years ago when we applied it to alcohol. Drug Dealers Don’t Card – Supermarkets Do.

    And although the prohibition may not be providing any benefit to us, it sure does cause a lot of harm! 850,000 people are arrested every year in this country for possessing marijuana, and more than 10,000 people are brutally murdered each year by our country’s illegal marijuana suppliers as they fight over profits and market share. Unfortunately these murders aren’t just restricted to other gang members either – they also include police officers, lawyers, journalists, parents and children of all ages.

    Surely we can’t be planning to allow these prohibition-related murders to continue if the prohibition really doesn’t work?

  7. Fred C / June 26, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    It’s hard to take these statistics seriously when no one noticed that the figures in the third paragraph add up to 101%.
    I experienced the problem of apathy as the worst consequence of regular marijuana use. It just seemed after my introduction to MJ in the military, that getting a college education was just unimportant. I had planned to go back to college after the service. I didn’t actually go back till my mid-forties, even though I smoked MJ for only 4 years. To me, that is sufficient reason for not making it generally legal, as though it were “safe.” Yes it is preferable to the two deadliest drugs, tobacco and alcohol, which for some incomprehensible rea$on are still legal despite what we know about them, but it is not a drug without any consequences.

  8. pfroehlich2004 / June 27, 2012 at 11:51 am

    No drug is without consequences However, this does not mean that prohibition is the most effective way to mitigate the potential harms of drug use, particularly given the severely damaging side-effects of this policy, to wit: creation of a large and violent black market, increased risk of overdose or poisoning among users due to a lack of quality-control or standardized dosages, mass incarceration, the diversion of limited public resources from more socially beneficial uses to prohibition enforcement.

    Moreover, it should be pointed out that the greatest successes of recent decades in reducing drug consumption and its attendant harms have been with cigarettes and alcohol. Use of both substances by US high school seniors has dropped by half since 1975. This was achieved without fines, SWAT raids, or handing out life sentences to 18-year-olds. Rather, our government wisely chose to impose severe advertising restrictions on these products, enforce minimum age requirements, and educate the public about the health risks of consuming these substances.

    Have a look at the data:

  9. Joshua / July 9, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    it’s easy to see why fred blames MJ, the post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallicy is an easy one to make. he probably thinks vaccines cause autism too.

  10. Barry Williams / July 24, 2012 at 5:32 am

    You said it! When something is seen as the cause of many diseases or the cure for many, there is reason to doubt either. Remember all of the dozens of diseases that were caused by silicone breast implants. Years more study concluded it was all false and that breast implants are likely one of the more benign modifications of the body.

  11. Barry Williams / July 24, 2012 at 5:37 am

    I’d go further and observe that no choice we make in our lives is without consequence. The consequence of trying to drink a gallon of water in an hour could well be death. The consequence of repeated, unprotected sex with strangers could be death from AIDS, or hepatitis. The consequence of choosing the wrong career could lifelong boredom and unhappiness.

  12. Barry Williams / July 24, 2012 at 5:42 am

    Prohibition of any human behavior does not stop the behavior. Samuel Clements said it best, “The prohibition is what makes a thing precious.” If cocaine were legal, it’d likely be worthless. It it was legal and there was no money in it, the peasants would not spend the time to harvest and process it because there’d likely be something else more lucrative. Some countries have the death penalty for certain drug use . . . they still have drug use!

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