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Cannabis Use on Campus: The Urgency of Education

Health, Safety, and Well-being Policy and Advocacy
August 10, 2023 Reni Mokrii Lafayette College

This is a second 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 previous post provided an overview of cannabis policy terminology, state and federal legislation, and the implication these policies have on higher education. 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:

  • When administrators should start talking about cannabis with students

  • How legislation compares with the data

  • Cannabis use and student success

  • The urgency of cannabis education

Although federal legislation prevents institutions from setting their own cannabis-related policies, campus professionals and students can work to build education around state legislation and cannabis use, and strategize on ways to build a safer campus environment. This work includes a willingness for student affairs professionals to stay up-to-date  about evolving federal and state policies as well as to build trust and openness with students. 

Age matters  

Some of the hesitation around having conversations about cannabis on campus may have to do with what has historically been considered the traditional age of undergraduate students. Even in states with legalized recreational cannabis, the legal age to consume it is 21 while most undergraduate students are in the range of 18 and 24 years old. As for medicinal cannabis, the legal age varies between 18 and 21. Statistical evidence shows that students start consuming cannabinoids in their early to mid-teens, reaching their first peak of consumption at the age of 16 and 18. Cannabis education remains a taboo topic to speak with underaged audiences in the K-12 system, and  higher education institutions following this trend only worsens the problem. Without proper education, students leaving their parents’ homes for the first time to study on campus becomes  another risk factor for excessive consumption.

Although cannabinoids are widely used in the medical field, campuses cannot ignore the growing body of research indicating the potential negative consequences of cannabis use on developing brains. The human brain is developing until the age of 25 which is far beyond the legal age for purchasing medicinal or recreational marijuana. To learn more about cannabis and its effects on brain development, mental health, workability, and sociability, The National Institute on Drug Abuse has a research report on its website

To learn more about the connection and conflict between what the data say and cannabis  policies, readers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with this article on the costs and benefits of cannabis control policies by Dr. Wayne Hall and a video-lecture on the gap between practice and data by Dr. Jason Kilmer, two global experts in cannabis studies. 

The Urgency of Education

Research suggests a correlation between excessive cannabis use and memory and concentration loss, anxiety disorder, decrease in grades and productivity, and insomnia. Campuses should work to reduce stigma associated with having conversations about personal cannabis use, increase opportunities for education on campus, and reframe cannabis use as a student success issue. Cannabis use rates among young people in the 2020s have reached their highest level since the 1980s. In addition, the threat of the substance for a developing brain in the 2020s is significantly higher than in the 1980s. This is due to the fact that the composition of cannabinoids has been evolving through the years, and the substance that today’s students consume has a potency level that is several times higher than THC in its original form. As a reminder, unlike CBD, THC is a cannabinoid element responsible for a “high” effect. 

Current research is very limited due to the novelty of the composition changes as well as the uneven opportunities for data collection and research among states with different use and expungement laws. Nevertheless, experts insist that it is time to act: efficient campus-based cannabis education strategies are an urgent need and should be a priority for higher education administrators across the country. In the forthcoming posts in this blog series, NASPA will provide the reader with practical tools, ideas, and recommendations to facilitate and advocate for cannabis education on their campuses. 

NASPA wants to express our gratitude to Whitney O’Regan and Emma Spalding from the Health, Safety, and Well-Being team at NASPA, and Dr. Jason Kilmer with the University of Washington for their contributions in providing valuable information for this blog post. 

Education may not prevent students from consumption but it gives them information to make an educated choice and guidance on how and where they can seek help and support if needed.

Did you like this post? Look out for next week's post on campus leadership roles and strategies 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. 

References

Melanie Hanson. (2022). College Enrollment and Students Demographic Statistics. Education Data Initiative. 

Jill Pease. (2016). UF study finds teens’ likelihood of trying marijuana peaks at ages 16, 18. University of Florida Health. 

Cannabis (Marijuana) Research Report. (2020). What Are Marijuana long-term effects’ on the brain? National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

Wayne Hall. (2020). The costs and benefits of cannabis control policies. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. The National Library of Medicine. 

Jason Kilmer. (2018) Dr. Jason Kilmer: Bridging the Gap between Science and Practice. The College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University. Youtube

Harvard Health Publishing. (2021). The effects of Marijuana on your memory. Harvard Medical School.  

Rebecca D. Crean, Natania A. Crane, and Barbara J. Mason. (2011). An Evidence Based Review of Acute and Long-Term Effects of Cannabis Use on Executive Cognitive Functions. J Addict Med. National Library of Medicine. 

Nadav Shalit, Shaul Lev-Ran. (2020) Does cannabis use increase anxiety disorders? A literature review. Curr Opin Psychiatry. National Library of Medicine. 

Amelia M. Arria, Kimberly M. Caldeira, Brittany A. Bugbee, Kathryn B. Vincent, and Kevin E. O’Grady. (2015) The Academic Consequences of Marijuana Use during College. Psychol Addict Behav. National Library of Medicine. 

Richard Crabbe. (2021). Does Marijuana Cause Insomnia or Lead to Sleep Disturbances? Free By the Sea. 

News Releases. (2021). Marijuana use at historic high among college-aged adults in 2020. National Institute of Health. 

The Washington State Prevention Research Subcommittee (PRSC). (2020) Cannabis Concentration and Health Risks. Report.