Cannabis vs Alcohol In The Age of Covid
Covid has had an impact on cannabis and alcohol use in college students.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, cannabis has found itself labeled an essential business, mostly due to its medical status in legal states. As it turns out, the pandemic also signaled, at least for the time being, a marked increase in use among college-aged students as well. The recently released Monitoring the Future survey, a comprehensive survey which, since 1976, has tracked students from their senior years in high school all the way to 60 years old, found a marked increase in cannabis use, as well as a decrease in alcohol use in college-age students. Cannabis use has been steadily increasing for many years prior, and researchers are currently collecting data through October to determine whether or not these shifts in consumption are temporary. But for now, it seems that cannabis may be the eventual victor.
The poll questioned 1550 college students between March and November of 2020 — a period corresponding with the beginning of the first lockdown and the beginning of COVID-19’s winter surge of hospitalizations. This time period was also associated with the abrupt end of in-person instruction at many universities and a profound alteration in the social lives of many college-age students. For those young adults who are not attending college, 43% have used cannabis over the past year — a statistic that has held steady since 2018. However, that rate of annual use among college students has climbed from 38% in 2015 to 44%, a rate not seen since its peak in 1980. And 7.9% of college students in 2020 say they are daily users, which is defined by the survey as having used cannabis at least 20 times over the past 30 days. This rate of daily use has shot up by 3.3 percentage points in one year, per the research.
Other important distinctions:
- College-age men polled far ahead of women for many use indicators. For instance, men were far more likely to have vaped cannabis over the past year or the past 30 days. They were also more likely to have smoked cannabis flower either over the past year or over the past 30 days. Men are also more likely to be daily users; however, both men and women reported similar rates of cannabis use within the past year.
- Cannabis use for all 19-30 year-old adults rose to all-time highs for consumption within the past year (42%), consumption within the past 30 days (27%) and daily use (9.8%).
- Vaping saw a momentary decline after increases reported from the beginnings of its inclusion in the polls in 2017 through 2019. In 2020, only 20% of those polled said they had vaped within the past year, and 11% reported daily use.
- Fewer college-age adults consider cannabis experimentation dangerous. This attitude metric, known as “perceived risk,” reached an all-time low of 5-8%, with 19-22% seeing regular use as dangerous. Interestingly, vaping cannabis was seen as far riskier – 14-20% saw occasional vaping as harmful, while 24-31% saw regular vaping as harmful.
- Separate from perceived risk is “personal disapproval,” which measures whether or not the person polled in the survey approves of a certain sort of cannabis use among their peers. While higher than perceived risk, this also dropped for cannabis, with 51-56% disapproving of regular use, 27-34% disapproving of occasional use and 20-26% disapproving of experimental use — all of these are at all-time lows. Disapproval of vaping cannabis, meanwhile, is much higher at all levels.
In the meantime, alcohol use dropped from 62% to 56% in one year, with binge drinking dropping from 32% to 24%. This drop may have something to do with the loss of social gatherings during the pandemic. Forbes cited a recent explanation by Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse. “What is likely going on, is alcohol drinking at that age is probably very much a group activity. In social isolation, many of those activities got closed.”
The researchers expressed some concern over the rise of daily cannabis consumption among college students. “The brain is still developing in the early 20s, and as the Surgeon General and others have reported, the scientific evidence indicates that heavy marijuana use can be detrimental to cognitive functioning and mental health,” lead investigator John Schulenberg mentioned in a communication from the study’s base at the University of Michigan. He indicated compromised academic performance and inabilities to meet adult responsibilities are possible outcomes for college students and non-college students respectively. “Of course, the landscape of cannabis use is changing, so continued research is needed regarding negative consequences of heavy use.”
Just as social customs regulate alcohol, and just as the pandemic disrupted those customs, new ones will potentially develop around the cannabis’s integration into American society. For now, this is what the data shows, and the most obvious takeaway from it is expanded growth and acceptance.
View the Surveys and Studies Here: