Pandemic Changed College Drug Use

The coronavirus pandemic changed our lives in many ways, but one change that surprised researchers occurred in colleges across the country. College students altered their substance use last year. A recent study discovered that alcohol use among college students declined, while marijuana use increased.

The “Monitoring the Future” study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), has been tracking drug use among college students and noncollege adults, ages 19-22, since 1980. Researchers conducted the 2020 version of the study online, surveying approximately 1,550 young adults between March 20, 2020, and November 30, 2020, during the pandemic.

According to the report, 44 percent of college students reported using marijuana in 2020, an increase from 38 percent in 2015. There was also an uptick in “daily or near daily” marijuana usage, which rose from 5 percent to 8 percent in the same time period.

“The pandemic seems to have actually made marijuana into an alternative to escape the monotony of isolation,” said Nora Volkow, director of NIDA.

At the same time, reported alcohol use among college students dipped from 62 percent in 2019 to 56 percent in 2020. In addition, the number of college students who reported being drunk in the past month decreased to 28 percent from 35 percent last year, and binge-drinking declined from 32 percent in 2019 to 24 percent in 2020.

Although the study does not address the causes behind these trends, researchers think that the pandemic’s toll on daily life and mental health may be one of the driving forces behind the dramatic changes in young adults’ consumption patterns.

“We clearly see that young people use alcohol as something to be taken at parties and gatherings. With the pandemic, those weren’t happening, so the alcohol intake and binge drinking dropped,” said John Schulenberg, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who served as the study’s principal investigator.

So, as isolation increased, students decreased drinking, which is a prevalent activity in large groups, and increased marijuana use as a way to deal with the stress of the pandemic. Scientists warned that using substances to reduce anxiety could increase the risk of substance use disorders and that, in some people, cannabis use can actually increase anxiety.

The survey also discovered that the perceived risk of marijuana is at an all time low. Only 24 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds believe marijuana use poses a great risk of harm.

“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, 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.”

A NIDA study found that marijuana users are more prone to suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts after analyzing data from 280,000 people ages 18-35.

It’s important that parents take the time to talk to their college students about these trends, the risks of various drugs, as well as how to cope with stress and loneliness in positive and healthy ways. You might use media coverage of drug abuse as a way to start a conversation, or start an open-ended question about trends they have noticed at college. You might also review our previous blog, Instilling Healthy Coping Skills, to get ideas for helping teens manage stress in a positive way.

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