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culture | 01.08.2020

College Students Are Smoking More Weed Than Ever And GPAs Have Never Been Higher

It looks like the caricature of the cannabis enthusiast as a college burnout that cuts classes to smoke weed might have just been proved wrong.

Data from both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and an independent survey have shown that levels of marijuana smoking among middle and high school kids either stayed the same or dropped following cannabis legalization.
As legalization becomes more widespread across the United States, cannabis smoking among teens (ages 12 to 17) has shifted downwards. The CDC study showed that past-month smoking rates in teens dropped 10 points from 2002 to 2014. This is, of course, keeping in mind that we haven’t seen statistics from the huge wave of legalization that started in 2014 and has kept rolling ever since.

A 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey shows that Colorado’s past-month smoking rate across teens is at one in every five. This number is a drop from the past-month self-reporting given in 2009, which came in at 24.8%. These statistics are just under the national average, despite the fact that marijuana would seem to be more readily accessible in a legal state like Colorado.

The survey also showed that:

  • 91% of high school students who had tried marijuana was over 13 years old the first time
  • 62% had never tried pot at all
  • Bisexual and transgender youth both used marijuana the most and at the same rate—37%
  • The same exact percentage of male and female youth, 21%, used cannabis

48% of Colorado students saw “regular marijuana use as risky behavior,” a much lower number than the 77% national average of teens who “told surveyors that they perceived ‘no great risk’ from smoking pot once a month.” Smoking pot has even taken over drinking alcohol as the vice of choice among teens, even though it’s somehow gotten harder to get over the years.

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(Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

College & University students smoking more weed than ever

And while this perception of safety doesn’t necessarily translate to increased weed smoking in teens, there has definitely been a shift when it comes to pot smoking among college kids.

Monitoring the Future, a long-term epidemiological study (largely of high school students), put out a set of statistics on college students from 1975 to 2014.

The growth of marijuana smoking took an interesting path over the last few decades. Measured annual cannabis use between 1980 and 1991 dropped from 56% to 29%—presumably the result of the early scare tactics of the War on Drugs, which could have affected either actual numbers or the proclivity for self-reporting. Annual marijuana smoking increased from 1991 to 2014 as pot culture slowly eased its way into popular acceptance, reaching a high point of 36%.

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(Photo by Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images)

College students began to smoke more often in the ’00s. 30-day prevalence started rising steadily in 2008, reaching beyond its past-decade high at 20.8%. Daily marijuana smoking also increased among college students; from 2007 to 2014 numbers rose from 3.5% to 5.9%. Non-college students of the same age hit daily numbers of 11%.

Perhaps most interestingly, annual numbers of the use of non-marijuana substances dropped from 32.3% in 1980 to 20.8% in 2014. Cigarette use has dropped, as has the use of narcotics other than heroin, and even tripping on hallucinogens is down. (Unsurprisingly, rates of the use of Adderall have stayed relatively constant around 10%.)

GPA’s have never been higher.

This cannot be attributed to the increased use of cannabis, but that’s not what is important. What is important to note that increased cannabis use has not shown to have an adverse impact on academic scholarship. Conversely, researcher Stuart Rojstaczer attributes the rise in GPAs to grade inflation. Rojstaczer argues that universities and colleges are developing an increasing leniency of assigning A grades as the educational system increasingly views students as customers.

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The figure above shows the average undergraduate GPAs for four-year American colleges and universities from 1983-2013 based on data from over 200 post-secondary institutions. Chart by: Stuart Rojstaczer

There is something of a contentious argument around what age it’s okay to start smoking weed. The consensus was that people should delay foraying into the vice until their brains are fully formed, around age 25. It’s certainly been established that the earlier a person starts smoking before a certain age, the worse. But a January 2017 study from the University of Montreal argues that the real cutoff age for brain impact from marijuana is 17, not the mid-20s. “We found that adolescents who started using cannabis at age 17 or older performed equally well [on IQ and prefrontal cortex tests] as adolescents who did not use cannabis,” explains the longitudinal study’s lead author Natalie Castellanos-Ryan. And if that’s the case, well, it’s not a problem if college students toke up—so enjoy.

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