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Cannabis Use Hits Record Levels Among College-Age Youth

Marijuana use continues to rise among college students and college-age youth, and remains at historically high levels

Grady NewSource

Marijuana use continued to rise among college students over the past five years and remained at historically high levels among same-aged peers who are not in college in 2020, according to survey results from the 2020 Monitoring the Future (MTF) panel study. The study is financed by the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which in the past has been a source of anti-pot misinformation.

According to the study, current levels represent the highest rate of marijuana use recorded since the 1980s. The survey also found that marijuana vaping and nicotine vaping leveled off in 2020 after sharp increases reported every year since 2017 for both college students and same-aged respondents not in college.

Among college students specifically, there was also a significant increase in the annual use of hallucinogens. Perhaps related was the substantial and significant drop in current alcohol use between 2019 and 2020.

“The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the way that young people interact with one another and offers us an opportunity to examine whether drug taking behavior has shifted through these changes,” said NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D. “Moving forward, it will be critical to investigate how and when different substances are used among this young population, and the impact of these shifts over time.”

Study Monitors College-Age Drug Use Since 1980

The Monitoring the Future (MTF) study has been annually tracking substance use among college students and noncollege adults ages 19-22 since 1980. Funded by the NIDA, part of the National Institutes of Health, scientists at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor conduct the study annually.

The scientists use data from college students one to four years beyond high school graduation who are enrolled full-time in a two- or four-year college in March of the given year. Researchers then compare students with same-age high school graduates not enrolled full-time in college.

The study collected data for the 2020 survey online from 1,550 college-aged adults between March 20, 2020 through November 30, 2020. The 2020 survey results are now available online.

Annual Cannabis Use Increases To 35-Year High

Annual marijuana use has continued to increase over the past five years for college students. It reached the highest level in over three-and-a-half decades in 2020. Among college students, 44% reported using marijuana in the past year in 2020. That compares to 38% in 2015, representing a significant increase.

For young adults not in college, annual Cannabis use in 2020 remained at 43%. That is the same historically high level as recorded in 2018 and 2019.

Interestingly, similar increases and record highs in marijuana use didn’t show up among 12th graders in recent years. In 2020, 35% of high school seniors said they used marijuana in the past year.

Additionally, daily or near daily use of Cannabis continued to rise among college students since 2015. In 2020, 8% of college students reporting using marijuana on a daily or near daily basis. This compares to about 5% in 2015.

In comparison, 13% of same-age noncollege adults reported using marijuana on a daily or near daily basis in 2020. That remains consistent with recent years.

Dramatic Increase In THC Vaping Levels Off

The 2020 MTF survey also recorded a halt in the dramatic increases in vaping marijuana among college-aged adults. The dramatic increase occurred between 2017 and 2019. During this time, the percentage of college-aged adults who reported vaping marijuana in the past 30 days more than doubled. It went from 5% to 14% for college students 2017-2019, and 8% to 17% for noncollege respondents.

In 2020, these increases leveled off. Just 12% of college students and 14% of noncollege respondents reporting vaping Cannabis in the past 30 days. There was a similar leveling off for vaping nicotine among college-age youth. This probably correlates with a weakening of public perceptions of vaping being safer than smoking.

Psychedelic Use Significantly Increases Among College Students

Past year use of psychedelics (including LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and other entheogenic substances) significantly increased among college students between 2019 and 2020.

In 2020, nearly 9% of college students reported the use of any psychedelics in the past year compared to 5% in 2019. Among noncollege respondents, annual use did not significantly increase in 2020. Use of psychedelic drugs remained relatively consistent in this group, at around 10% compared to 8% in 2020.

Tobacco, Amphetamines, And Opioids Decline

Other highlights from the 2020 survey results on college-age adults include:

  • Cigarette smoking continued to decline over the past five years to all-time lows over the past four decades. In 2020, 4% of college students reporting having smoked in the past month and 13% of noncollege respondents reporting having smoked in the past month.
  • Nonmedical use of amphetamines (including misuse of ADHD medications like Adderall®) continued to decline for college students. In 2020, we saw a significant five-year decline in annual use to 6.5%. University students have typically had higher prevalence of nonmedical amphetamine use over the past decade. But this gap closed in 2020, with 6% of non-college youth reporting past year use.
  • Prescription opioid misuse continued to decline for college students and noncollege youth. There were significant five-year declines in annual use for both groups. In 2020, 1% of college students and 3.5% of same-aged peers not at university reported non-medical use of opioids (narcotic drugs other than heroin) in the past year.

Results from the 2021 Monitoring the Future survey of substance use behaviors and related attitudes among teens in the United States will be published in this December.