Why are College Students Drinking Less Alcohol and Smoking More Weed

Where's Weed

Published on Dec 10, 2021

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“There is a time and a place for everything,” Chef from South Park famously said, “and it’s called college.” The opportunity to get out of the house, study an area of interest, and meet new people is one that millions of Americans are pursuing in universities both large and small. One long-celebrated tenet of the college scene is the party scene; some schools go so far as to appear on the list of best party schools ranked, meaning that they work hard and they play hard. With parties comes alcohol; each day over one million college students drink, while the average student drinks 6 times a month with 4 drinks in each sitting.

While liquor stores near to universities may not notice much of a change, college drinking trends are decelerating rather than ramping up. One interesting change on college campuses across the United States is that more and more students are putting down the bottle, and in many cases, picking up a bowl. Cannabis consumption among college students is higher than ever at the same time that alcohol use is dropping steadily. What are some of the reasons behind this trend?

Numbers Game

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The typical college demographic of 18- to 22-year-old adults is often studied as an indicator of future trends. One compelling study from the National Survey Results on Drug Use found a staggering 50% of young adults had consumed cannabis within the past year, a major jump from recent generations. While young people across the board consume more drugs than their parents or grandparents, cannabis consumption has grown well ahead of all other drug use. A full 44% of 18- to 22-year-old Americans report having used cannabis within the past thirty days, furthermore, indicating that their use may not just be a curious puff but a true habit, or even a cannabis hobby.

What is true for smoking marijuana is also true for vaping. A full 24%, or one in four, 19-22 year old Americans vape cannabis products regularly, while many more report having tried vaping cannabis. While vaping cannabis is not as popular overall as vaping tobacco, it remains much higher in the younger generation than other 20- or 30-year old age groups.

Cause and Effect

The most obvious reason for this uptick in the college crowd is the law. Waves of legalization across the United States, particularly recreational legalization, have accelerated the use of marijuana across the young. There are now more states where cannabis is recreational than states where it is totally banned; as election season draws near, many more states have legalization initiatives on the ballot, meaning that for the near future their policies may change drastically. 

What is true of recreational cannabis is also true of medical cannabis. Although younger people are broadly healthier than older age groups, a full one in ten college students report having a disability. Some universities are scrambling to accommodate disabled students, while some disabled students have access to medicinal marijuana due to their condition.

Finally, there is the social element to drinking, a social element that has largely been lost since the COVID-19 pandemic. Fewer open universities means fewer parties; fewer bar openings mean fewer stays until last call. By contrast, cannabis dispensaries are growing stronger and stronger, meaning that an alternative substance can quickly, easily, and affordably replace the buzz of booze. While cannabis also has many social links, it is just as popular for solo use. Furthermore, cannabis can help study skills, something that alcohol is woefully inept at.

Drink Up, Drink Down

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Data continues to pour forth as researchers delve into the effects of remote learning on all aspects of college life, including drinking. One particularly sobering statistic (if you’re in the alcohol business) is that over half, 55%, reported having zero alcoholic drinks within the past week during the fall of 2020, a time when most universities moved classes online. Only 22% had a single drink in the past week, and only 1% had more than five. This decreased drinking level is matched by an uptick in cannabis consumption: college students who report using cannabis rose from 38% to 44%. This cannabis use isn’t just regulated to universities, as young adults in college consume roughly the same amount of marijuana as non-college students.

Going forward, it is likely that consumption of both substances accelerates. The ongoing cannabis boom throughout the country ensures that marijuana is available in many places, in good quality, and at a lower cost than the black market. Likewise, as more campuses return to in-person learning, parties and bar crawls should follow. However, it is possible that this trend reflects a shift in college culture, one that may usher in a new conceptualization of having a good time in higher education.

What was your recreational substance of choice during your college years? Did you shift from alcohol to cannabis or vice-versa? Let us know in the comments below how the college scene has changed since you were in school, or how your current studies are influenced by the cannabis revolution!

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