The University Network

In States With Legal Marijuana, Students Smoke More But Binge-Drink Less

College students living in states that have legalized marijuana are smoking more of it but binge-drinking less, new research out of Oregon State University (OSU) finds.

The research consists of two separate studies. The first, which was recently published in the journal Addiction, finds that in states that have legalized marijuana, there has been a significant uptick in the number of students using it. The second “companion” study suggests students living in these states may simply be swapping one vice for another — booze for weed. 

Students ages 18-26 in states with legal marijuana were 18 percent more likely to have used the drug in the past month, the researchers found. They were also 17 percent more likely to use marijuana frequently, which the researchers defined as using marijuana at least 20 days over the course of month.  

The number also increased over time. Six years after legalizing the drug, students in the early-adopting states were 46 percent more likely to have used marijuana than their peers in states where it’s not legal.

And between 2012 and 2018, overall marijuana usage rates in non-legalized states increased from 14 percent to 17 percent, while in the earliest states to make marijuana legal, usage increased from 21 percent to 34 percent. 

“It’s easy to look at the findings and think, ‘Yeah, of course rates would increase,’ ” David Kerr, a co-author of the study from OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, said in a news release. “But we need to quantify the effects these policy changes are having.”

The good news is, students living in legal-weed states are drinking less. Sure, it’s not as if these students are trading alcohol for kale smoothies. Marijuana consumption, particularly if used repeatedly, can cause its own set of health and academic problems. 

But binge-drinking among college students has been a long-standing problem in the United States. 

Nationally, young adults ages 18-24, who are in college, are more likely to drink to excess than their non-college peers. And such habits, which are commonly pressured by campus social life, can lead to serious health problems.

Globally, among people ages 15-49, 12.2 percent of all male deaths and 3.8 percent of all female deaths are attributable to alcohol. 

At this point, the researchers don’t have any solid evidence as to why students in states where weed is legal are choosing it over booze, but they have a theory.

Typically, when students turn 21, they choose alcohol — the historically legal option — over weed, the researchers note. But this trend changes when weed is legalized. 

“When you’re under 21, all substances are equally illegal,” Zoe Alley, OSU doctoral candidate and co-author of the companion study, said in the release. “In most states, once you reach 21, a barrier that was in the way of using alcohol is gone, while it’s intact for marijuana use. But when marijuana is legal, this dynamic is changed.”

For their research, the researchers used data from the 2008 to 2018 National College Health Assessment survey, which includes responses from more than 850,000 students across 48 states and 589 colleges.