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The use of cannabis by students poses special challenges for campuses. Learn more about marijuana use among college students.

Federal law requires that all institutions of higher education enforce a ban on the use of illicit drugs.  Cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under Federal law, and all campuses have concluded that regardless of state laws, a cannabis ban on campus must be observed.

State laws vary dramatically. A growing number of states have legalized the possession and use of cannabis by those aged 21 and over. Over thirty states have legalized cannabis for medicinal use. Other states have retained either outright bans, or varying levels of decriminalization.  What’s more, these laws seem to be rapidly evolving; therefore, campuses need to monitor their state and local laws to better understand the changing legal environment.

The method of consuming cannabis has been changing. While smoking cannabis is still the most common method of administration, other products are coming to the legalized markets. These include an ever-expanding menu of edible and drinkable THC-infused products.  Also, various methods of extracting THC-rich concentrates have supported a growing vaporizing or e-cigarette style of use.  Both edible and vaporizing products allow for a more disguised use of cannabis, which may be promoting an increased open (yet undetectable) use pattern.

From a prevention perspective—especially in states that have legalized cannabis—instead of just a focus on use itself, campuses are wise to focus on the harms associated with cannabis use.  Four apparent harms are emerging as issues particularly affecting the college population:

Impaired driving and other impairment-related risks may be the most immediate concern.  A growing body of research is documenting the increased risk of crashes that cannabis impaired drivers face.  From smoked or vaporized cannabis, any use within about 3-5 hours of driving likely doubles the risk of crash .  Police departments across the nation are increasing efforts to detect and arrest motorists who operated a vehicle while impaired by cannabis.  Also of substantial concern are the impairments that come from combining cannabis with even low levels of alcohol.  Alcohol and cannabis impairs the brain—and by extension  cognitive systems—differently.  Combining even low-level impairments yields a driver who is particularly at risk.   

brief-backgroundEdible versions of cannabis may pose heightened risk as well.  While there is less research on edibles, user reports tell us that the effects of  eating cannabis infused products can last between 6-16 hours.  Further, the THC dose within edibles tends to be much higher than smoking even concentrated forms.  And to add to the hazard, the effects felt from eaten cannabis tend to be delayed up to one hour.  So it becomes very likely that someone who has eaten cannabis will either place themselves in a risky situation (such as behind the wheel), or use alcohol or other drugs in between the consumption and the effects of that eaten dose.

Academic performance is another concern.  While the research on the effect of cannabis on academic performance is young, some studies have found results that are of concern.  Discontinuous enrollment in college is predicted by cannabis use, as is poorer academic performance.  Of course these are correlative studies, and therefore come with caveats against making causative conclusions.  Further, there are no agreed upon measures for classifying use-styles into low, moderate or high risk.  So, unlike with alcohol where low-risk use can be a goal of educational programs, it is unclear how to educate students who do use cannabis on lowering their risk of academic consequences.

For those students who are on the younger extremes of the population (e.g., 17 or 18), there is some research that has led to concerns about brain-development consequences of heavy cannabis use.  This too is early research and may include a growing number of caveats about concomitant use of alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs.  But from a risk-reduction perspective, delaying the initiation of any cannabis use may be an objective for the campus.

Best Practices for Prevention

There are a precious few studies demonstrating the effectiveness of cannabis prevention efforts or agreement on best practices for this topic.  This becomes especially true when one attempts to focus prevention on the harms, and not necessarily absolute use.  That said, what appears to be emerging is an adaptation of approaches seen as successful with alcohol prevention.

Using motivational enhancement and motivational interviewing techniques, students can explore for themselves the discrepancies between their desired outcomes with their actual experiences.  Doing so may elicit a motivation to change their use patterns.  Using such a strategy may require campuses to have a goal of harm reduction, instead of strict abstinence; something some campuses in states with legal access or medical exemptions likely will need to adopt anyway.  This approach also avoids eliciting resistance or reactance:  a serious concern for this highly politicized drug.  There are some encouraging results from computer-based approaches to brief interventions employing a motivational enhancement style.

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