College-Age Adults Getting High at Historic Levels

College students are using cannabis and psychedelics at a higher rate than past years, while alcohol use is at a record low rate.

Marijuana use by college students continued to rise over the past five years, while cannabis use by their same-age peers stayed historically high, according to the latest results of a national study tracking substance use by young adults released this week. 

The National Institutes of Health on Wednesday released data from the 2020 Monitoring the Future study, which has been collecting information on alcohol and drug use by young adults aged 19 through 22 since 1980.

Nora D. Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), noted in a press release on Wednesday that, in addition to the increase in marijuana use, college students reported a significant rise in the use of hallucinogens and a substantial drop in alcohol use between 2019 and 2020.

“The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the way that young people interact with one another and offers us an opportunity to examine whether drug-taking behavior has shifted through these changes,” Volcow said. “Moving forward, it will be critical to investigate how and when different substances are used among this young population, and the impact of these shifts over time.”

Marijuana Use Up Significantly

Among college students, 44 percent reported using marijuana during the past year in 2020, compared to 38 percent in 2015. For those not in college, past-year marijuana use remained at the historically high level of 43 percent in 2020, the same rate reported in 2018 and 2019.

Daily use of marijuana (defined as using marijuana on 20 or more occasions in the past 30 days) has also continued to rise, with eight percent of college students reporting daily use compared to five percent in 2015. For adults of the same age not in college, 13 percent reported using cannabis on a daily basis.

“Daily marijuana use is a clear health risk,” said John Schulenberg, lead investigator of the Monitoring the Future study. “The brain is still developing in the early 20s, and as the Surgeon General and others have reported, the scientific evidence indicates that heavy marijuana use can be detrimental to cognitive functioning and mental health.”

“As of 2020, almost one in 12 college students used marijuana on a daily basis, and we know from our research and that of others that heavy marijuana use is associated with poor academic performance and dropping out of college,” Schulenberg continued. “For the almost one in seven young adults aged 19-22 not in college who are daily marijuana users, getting a foothold on the roles and responsibilities of adulthood may be all the more difficult. Of course, the landscape of cannabis use is changing, so continued research is needed regarding negative consequences of heavy use.”

Schulenberg and his fellow researchers cited several likely causes of the increase in marijuana use among college-aged adults, including a reduced perception of harm associated with daily marijuana use. In 2020, 21 percent perceived regular cannabis use as carrying a great risk of harm, the lowest level since 1980.

Use of Hallucinogens Also Up

The use of hallucinogens including LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelic substances also increased significantly between 2019 and 2020. Last year, almost nine percent of college students reported using any psychedelic drug, compared to five percent in 2019. The use of hallucinogens by those not in college did not increase significantly, remaining somewhat consistent at about 10 percent in 2020 compared to eight percent in 2019.

“This continued increase in the use of hallucinogens corresponds with the decrease in the perception that hallucinogens are harmful,” Schulenberg said. “For example, the perception that experimental use of LSD carries great harm was at only 28 percent in 2020 among 19-to-22-year-olds. This is an all-time low over the past four decades and far below the highest level of 50 percent in 1989.”

Alcohol use by college students, however, showed a significant drop in 2020, with 56 percent reporting drinking in the past 30 days compared to 62 percent in 2019. Additionally, 28 percent of college students said that they had gotten drunk in the past 30 days, down from 35 percent in 2019, while 24 percent reported binge drinking (drinking five or more drinks in a row during the past two weeks) in 2020, compared to 32 percent the year before. Alcohol use by non-college students remained fairly consistent across all measures, with no reported drop in 2020.

“Historically, college students have reported the highest levels of binge drinking compared to same-aged youth who are not enrolled in college. This is the first year where binge drinking was similar between the two groups,” Schulenberg said. “While binge drinking has been gradually declining among college students for the past few decades, this is a new historic low, which may reflect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of reduced time with college friends.”

The Monitoring the Future study has been tracking substance use by young adults ages 19 to 22 since 1980. Funded by NIDA, the survey is conducted annually by scientists at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, Ann Arbor. Results are based on data collected from full-time college students one to four years past high school graduation compared to high school graduates of the same age who are not enrolled in college full time.

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