Many parents fear that once their kids go off to college, their newfound freedom will just lead them to sex, alcohol, and experimental drugs. Well, some of that may be true. But, it turns out that college students these days are lightweights when compared to their parents. Overall, substance use is at an all-time low for undergraduates. With one exception: cannabis. Students are using more marijuana yet fewer opioids and other hard drugs.
Decreased substance use overall
A recent report shows that college students are using fewer drugs. The report comes from a University of Michigan study, a four-decade-long analysis of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. The research shows that those in their 20s today use far fewer drugs than baby boomers during the same age range.
When baby boomers were in college, over half of them had used recreational drugs. Now, only 40 of young adults have used illicit substances. Rates of tobacco use are also at an all-time low. Only 20.5% of college students have smoked cigarettes or used other tobacco products.
College students: more cannabis, fewer painkillers
Though substance use has decreased overall, the most surprising statistics are about narcotic drugs like opioid painkillers. The U.S. is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. Death rates from heroin and prescription opioid drugs have increased 6 fold from 2001 to 2014.
Yet, these numbers drop among college students. 8.7% of students used opioid painkillers in 2003, but only 3.3% of them used the drugs in 2015. The exact reason for the decline is unknown, but the drop comes with a rise in another substance. Cannabis.
College students today still consume a little over 13% less cannabis than students in the 1980s. Yet, the rate of cannabis use among 20-somethings is rising. According to research scientist Lloyd Johnston, fewer young people perceive cannabis as harmful.
This perception among students is mirrored by the general population. Overall, cannabis use has only increased over the past 2 decades. Johnston thinks the internet might be changing public perception about the herb. Negative messages about cannabis are rare in social media.
The use of the Internet has certainly increased information exchange from objective sources and other people the same age. Perhaps young people today are more informed about things. – Johnston
A safer alternative
There’s a lot of debate over the effects of cannabis on developing brains. So far, the verdict is mixed but less harmful than you might imagine. At least in adults, cannabis may have a protective effect rather than a destructive one.
Yet, regardless, increased cannabis use might be a harms reduction tradeoff. As Johnston tells NPR , we will never live in a drug-free society. Unlike prescription opioids, tobacco, alcohol, and other illicit drugs, cannabis has a very high margin of safety.
In fact, the herb may even help people avoid prescription opioids. Recent studies have shown that both rates of opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths are lower in states that allow medical cannabis.
In fact, medical cannabis states lowered their opioid overdose deaths by 24.8%. Politicians like Elizabeth Warren have even suggested that cannabis reform is a tool which could combat the opioid epidemic.
So, while students may be hitting more green, they’re popping fewer pills, smoking fewer cigarettes, and saying no to other hard drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. College students will probably always want to experiment, but it sure looks like they are making smarter decisions about what they want to consume.
In this respect, it seems like they’ve one-upped baby boomers in terms of better health choices.