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Cannabis Use on Campus: Starting the Conversation

Health, Safety, and Well-being Policy and Advocacy
August 24, 2023 Reni Mokrii Lafayette College

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about cannabis use on campus in connection with recent state legalization and what administrators can do to secure and promote a safer environment for their students. The first post provided an overview of cannabis state and federal legislation and the implication these policies have on higher education. The second and third posts of the series were dedicated to on-campus cannabis education–the urgency of the issue, leadership roles, and strategies to educate students. This post is intended to help student affairs professionals begin developing educational content to share with students and colleagues. As a reminder, NASPA is a nonpartisan organization, and this material is published for educational purposes only.

In this text, the reader will learn about:

  • Top-5 topics to include in cannabis education

  • Lower-risk cannabis use guidelines 

Top-5 Topics for Student Cannabis Education

Cannabis education is a complex topic due both its intersectionality between policy and science and novelty that lead to the lack of data. Nevertheless, to facilitate the start of conversation for the novice, NASPA has spoken to some leading experts in the field to gather some key points as suggestions for student affairs professionals to include in their cannabis education agenda:  

  • The composition of cannabis has evolved significantly over time.  In the 1970s, cannabis contained around 1.0%-1.5% THC, in the 1980s this increased to 2%-3%, and in the 1990s it was at 4%-5%. Presently, the THC content in smokable flowers varies between 20-30%, while in concentrates, it can be as high as 60%-90%.  High potency cannabis (over 10% THC) is linked to an increased likelihood of  cannabis use disorder, the emergence of mental health-related issues, and various other adverse effects.

  • Debunk the myth that “everyone” is using cannabis. Addressing such misconceptions can support students who choose not to initiate use, and reinforce the self-efficacy of those contemplating reducing their usage or engaging in abstinence.

  • Student affairs professionals and institutions must prioritize cannabis policies to remain in line with the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act Cannabis use should be a part of student success discourse – according to the current data, cannabis use is associated with lower GPA and extended graduation timelines. Some students also report cannabis use negatively impacts their sleep quality and exacerbates their anxiety causing it to hinder their academic success.

  • Particularly on campuses located in states permitting medical cannabis, students may encounter conflicting claims about cannabis and its benefits. NASPA encourages readers to learn more about shifting the paradigm on cannabis safety and about the associated risks of cannabis medical card use.  

  • The most rigorous studies available show there is no safe amount of cannabis use. Prevention strategies can emphasize this fact and aid in altering students’ usage habits. If students still decide to use, while there are guidelines for minimizing risks, it’s crucial to note that use, possession, and public use on campus continue to be prohibited.

Lowering risks

Cannabis educators must understand that, according to available data, every route of cannabis use poses harmful risks. Moreover, cannabis is recognized as an addictive substance. This means that regardless of the level of caution exercised in its use, frequent or intensive use can lead to cannabis use disorder, and the withdrawal can be painful and harmful in multiple ways. Additionally, similar to alcohol, cannabis is often viewed to have negative consequences beyond that of the individual who chooses to use due to certain behaviors that have been associated with its use. If a student chooses to engage in cannabis use, one approach would be to encourage them to be socially conscious and realize that their choices might cause harm to others, especially minors and peers with particular health risks. Some of the risks to peers are in the form of second-hand exposure and impaired driving. Therefore, the safest approach to cannabis use is to avoid use at all. If a student nevertheless makes the choice to use cannabis, the focus must shift to lowering potential risks. 

The following recommendations, adapted from Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines (LRCUG), aim to reduce health risks from non-medical cannabis use:

  • Age matters: The later the onset of cannabis use, the better. One should delay use until after puberty, and in the ideal scenario – until the age of 25. 

  • Potency matters: High THC potency (over 10%) increases harm. Opt for THC-free, low-THC or high-CBD:THC ratio products. 

  • No safe route of use: Remember, there is no safe way to consume cannabinoids. Although smoking cannabis is associated with highest risks, all the other routes such as vaping or oral ingestion, are harmful in  slightly varied ways. 

  • Inhalation precautions: If use occurs by inhalation, one should avoid “deep inhalation,” prolonged breath-holding, or similar inhalation practices to lower harm to the pulmonary system. 

  • Frequency and intensity matter: People who consume cannabis should limit their cannabis use to occasional or infrequent use (e.g., use only 1 or 2 days per week, or on weekends only) and avoid repeated, intensive ‘binge’ use. 

  • Legality matters: Whenever possible, if students choose to consume cannabis, they should choose legally regulated products and devices. These options are more predictable in their composition and potency, especially when there is product content labeling, and are presumably safer due to their regulation. 

  • Consumers should avoid driving a motor-vehicle or operating machinery while under the influence of cannabis. 

  • Pregnant, breastfeeding, or soon-to-be-parenting students should abstain from cannabis use. 

  • Students should avoid concurrent use of cannabis and other psychoactive substances

  • Family history and health conditions matters: Students should abstain from cannabis use if they have a family history of mood disorders, substance use disorders, or active psychosis; or, if students themselves are diagnosed with these conditions. 

  • Complexity of risk factors: While research on the combinations of cannabis-related risk behaviors is limited, available data suggest that the more risk behaviors one engages in,  the greater the risk and severity of adverse outcomes from using cannabis. 

To learn more about the research and gain a deeper understanding of these recommendations, readers are encouraged to consult the original guidelines. As a reminder, while abstinence may not always be the outcome, the goal of education is to offer informed guidance and provide options of how students may seek help when needed. 

Did you like this post? Look out for next week's post on the importance of research and advocacy regarding cannabis use on campus. Want to see more topical deep dives? We'd love to hear from you!  Please fill out this form to let us know about what legislative activity, and topical issues you are most impacted by.