In 2020, college students consumed more marijuana than they have in the past 35 years, according to a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Interestingly, alcohol use also decreased by 6% in 2020.
Last year was a tough one. It was the start of a pandemic that will be talked about for centuries to come. Social unrest, rioting, protests, political turmoil, and general end-of-the-world fears made it a pretty tough time to get through.
And that’s just for the everyday person. Imagine being a college student through 2020 — watching as the world you are preparing to enter falls into disarray, as the jobs you will be seeking change form. The workplaces and collaborative spaces you were expecting to frequent evaporate into the ether, potentially never to be seen again, replaced by a decentralized schedule of staring at screens and talking to pixelated, halting images of others.
It’s not surprising, then, that ganja was a popular form of self-medication through such a tumultuous year.
The Figures Around Marijuana
According to data collected by Monitoring the Future, 44% of college students reported consuming cannabis in 2020, marking the highest usage levels in three and a half decades. The study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was performed at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. That institute has data reaching back to 1980 on substance use by college students.
In 2015, a similar study found a cannabis use rate of 35% among college students, meaning there has been a 9% increase in just 6 years. Non-college young adults are also using marijuana at an all-time high of 43%, though this is the same level as recorded in 2018 and 2019.
Eight percent of college students reported using cannabis daily in 2020; compare this to 2015, when the rate of daily cannabis use was 5%. Outside of college, 13% of young adults report using cannabis every day in 2020.
Use of Other Substances
Marijuana was not the only substance that increased among college students in 2020. Psychedelic use also increased by a factor of nearly two, rising from a reported rate of 5% in 2019 to 9% in 2020. Among those not in college, the rate of psychedelic use also increased but not as significantly, rising from 8% to 10% in 2020.
Interestingly, alcohol use was markedly lower among college students in 2020 than in the previous year. Among college students surveyed in 2019, 62% reported having consumed alcohol in the past month, and 35% reported having been drunk in the past month. Compare that with 2020: 56% of students reported having consumed alcohol in the past month (a 6% decrease), and 28% reported having been drunk in the past month (a 7% decrease).
In the past two weeks, the rate of binge drinking, which the researchers define as having drunk at least five alcoholic drinks in a row, was also lower in 2020 than in 2019: 24% vs. 32% (an 8% decrease).
The rate of alcohol consumption did not vary from previous years among non-college students, however. In 2020, 49% of respondents reported having consumed alcohol in the past month, 22% reported having been drunk in the past month, and 24% reported having binge drunk in the past two weeks. These figures are similar to the reported rates for the past five years.
One particular piece of data caught the eye of the University of Michigan’s professor of psychology, Dr. John Schulenberg, who also happens to be the principal investigator of the study: this is the first year where binge drinking was not significantly different between college and non-college respondents.
The use of tobacco also decreased among college students, falling to record lows in the time period of the past five years. Just 4% of college student respondents said they had smoked in the past 30 days, compared with 13% of non-college students.
What This Means
While it’s hard to draw causal inferences from the data, we can say with certainty that 2020 was the most unusual year in college students’ lives. It’s not terribly surprising that their substance use shifted in accordance.
Future studies will show whether these changes are permanent or simply a temporary response to the pandemic.