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US undergraduates’ marijuana use hit record high during pandemic

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Levels of marijuana and hallucinogen use by US undergraduates increased significantly as the coronavirus pandemic hit, according to a major study.

The annual Monitoring the Future survey, conducted annually by the University of Michigan for the Institutes of Health, found a corresponding decrease in alcohol consumption, suggesting that Covid lockdowns and campus closures drove a major shift in how college students socialised.

According to the survey of 1,550 students conducted between March and November last year, 44 per cent of respondents reported using marijuana during 2020, the highest level in three-and-a-half decades. This represents an increase of 6 percentage points in five years and means that cannabis use among undergraduates is now at a similar level to young people of a similar age who are not in college.

The proportion of students reporting daily or near-daily use of marijuana rose to 8 per cent, compared to 5 per cent in 2015.

Dozens of US states have legalised medicinal use of marijuana, and the number of states permitting recreational use has grown swiftly to 16 as of earlier this year.

However, universities may be concerned by a 2018 study which found that students in states which had legalised even just the medicinal use of marijuana spent around 20 per cent less time on their studies than their peers in states where it is still banned – equivalent to a reduction of around 25 minutes’ study time every day.

Monitoring the Future found that 9 per cent of undergraduates reported using hallucinogens such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms in 2020, up from 5 per cent in 2019.

However, in 2020, only 56 per cent of students reported drinking alcohol within the last 30 days, compared to 62 per cent the year before, and only 28 per cent reported being drunk within the last month, compared to 35 per cent in 2019. Trends had been stable in the four preceding years.

Less than a quarter (24 per cent) of college students reported binge drinking – classed as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in a row in the two weeks before completing the survey – during 2020, compared to 32 per cent in 2019.

The pandemic “dramatically changed the way that young people interact with one another and offers us an opportunity to examine whether drug taking behaviour has shifted through these changes”, said Nora Volkow, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse.

John Schulenberg, a professor of psychology at Michigan who is the principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future study, agreed.

“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,” he 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 study found that cigarette smoking continued to decline in 2020, hitting a new low of 4 per cent uptake among college students, while non-medical use of amphetamines also declined to 6.5 per cent. Just 1 per cent of undergraduates reported opioid misuse.

Dramatic increases in vaping marijuana and nicotine reported by students in recent years levelled off in 2020, the study found. Between 2017 and 2019 the proportion reporting vaping marijuana within the past 30 days increased from 5 per cent to 14 per cent, but dipped to 12 per cent in 2020. Between 2017 and 2019 the proportion reporting vaping nicotine increased from 6 per cent to 22 per cent, but fell to 19 per cent in 2020.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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