The coronavirus pandemic has infected 41 million and killed nearly 700,000 people in the United States. The lockdown necessitated by the viral pandemic has upended economies and moved classes to bedrooms. It may have also contributed to another change for college students: more weed, less booze.
A new study, funded by National Institute on Drug Abuse, entitled “Monitoring the Future,” finds that 44 percent of college students reported using marijuana in 2020 (an increase from 38 percent in 2015). Daily or near daily marijuana usage rose from 5 percent to 8 percent in five years.
Reported alcohol use among college students was 56 percent, down from 62 percent in 2019. Binge-drinking — five or more drinks in one outing at least once in two weeks — dropped from 32 percent to 24 percent. These trends may reflect attempts to cope with the global health crisis.
“The pandemic seems to have actually made marijuana into an alternative to escape the monotony of isolation,” said Nora Volkow, director of the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. “It’s made life become more boring, more stressful. So if drugs let you experience that completely different mental state, I wonder whether that would be a factor that leads people to use them.”
“That’s definitely one the greatest pandemic effects. We clearly see that young people use alcohol as something to be taken at parties and gatherings,” said John Schulenberg, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and the study’s principal investigator. “With the pandemic, those weren’t happening, so the alcohol intake and binge drinking dropped.”
The study also showed a four-percentage-point increase in psychedelic drug use. College students’ hallucinogen consumption was up from 5 percent in 2019 to 9 percent in 2020. Use of these drugs among noncollege young adults increased from 8 to 10 percent.
According to Susan A. Stoner, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute, using substances to reduce anxiety “could increase the risk of development of substance use disorders.”
“Some may also find that cannabis use can acutely increase anxiety, particularly in new users,” Stoner said.
Another distressing finding from the survey was a significant drop in the drug’s perceived risk.
“It’s at an all-time low among the 18- to 20-year-olds, with only 24 percent believing marijuana use poses a great risk of harm,” Schulenberg said. “And it’s really not just college students, it’s society in general. This can be quite dangerous.”
Research shows that these substances pose significant harm to young people’s development when they are consumed routinely.
“It’s concerning because we know that marijuana use, and particularly when it is in regular use … it’s associated to the higher risk of psychosis,” Volkow said. “And on the other one, the use of marijuana increasingly being associated with suicidal thinking — all while young people are going through a very significant and stressful situation to begin with.”
After analyzing data from a NIDA study of 280,000 people ages 18-35 that she worked on, Volkow found that marijuana users are more prone to suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts.
“We still haven’t solved the problem of the pandemic, and it’s still generated an enormous amount of stress,” said Volkow. “The mental health consequences of stress from the pandemic will be very persistent, and we’ll persevere after we control the virus. Emotional symptoms of distress place people at risk for taking more drugs.”
Funded by National Institute on Drug Abuse, the “Monitoring the Future” study, has been tracking drug use among college students and noncollege adults ages 19-22 since 1980.