Highest since 1980: 1 in 17 US college students regularly smokes pot, study says

© Cliff DesPeaux
The number of US college students regularly smoking marijuana has reached the highest point since 1980, a new study has found. Daily or near-daily marijuana use was reported by 5.9 percent of college kids in 2014— up from 3.5 percent in 2007.

It means that one in every 17 college students surveyed by University of Michigan researchers for the ‘Monitoring the Future’ nationwide study smokes marijuana on a daily/near-daily basis, defined as use on 20 or more occasions in the prior 30 days.

The percent using marijuana once or more in the prior 30 days rose from 17 percent in 2006 to 21 percent in 2014. Use in the prior 12 months rose from 30 percent in 2006 to 34 percent in 2014. Both of these measures leveled in 2014, according to the study. The annual survey has been reporting on US college students' substance use of all kinds for 35 years.

"It's clear that for the past seven or eight years there has been an increase in marijuana use among the nation's college students," the study's main author Lloyd Johnston said. "And this largely parallels an increase we have been seeing among high school seniors."

© Brian Snyder

Researchers attribute the increase to the fact that marijuana use has recently come to be perceived as dangerous by fewer adolescents and young adults. While 55 percent of all high school graduates aged between 19 and 22 saw regular marijuana use as dangerous in 2006, only 35 percent considered it as such by 2014.

The study has also found that the proportion of college students using any illicit drug, including marijuana, in the prior 12 months rose from 34 percent in 2006 to 41 percent in 2013. That seven-year increase was mostly driven by the surge in marijuana use, though marijuana was not the only drug on the rise, researchers say.

Meanwhile, the proportion of college students using any illicit drug other than marijuana in the prior 12 months increased from 15 percent in 2008 to 21 percent in 2014, due to college students' increased use of amphetamines (without a doctor's orders) and use of ecstasy.

College students' nonmedical use of amphetamines in the prior 12 months almost doubled between 2008 (when 5.7 percent said they used) and 2012 (when 11.1 percent did), before leveling at 10.1 percent in 2014.

"It seems likely that this increase in amphetamine use on the college campus resulted from more students using these drugs to try to improve their studies and test performance," Johnston stated in the press release.

Their age-peer high school graduates not in college had higher-reported amphetamine use for a number of years (from 1983 to 2008), but after 2010, college students have had the higher rate of use, the study found.

"Fortunately, their use of these drugs appears to have leveled among college students, at least," Johnston added.

According to the study, ecstasy appeared to come back in use among college students from 2007 through 2012, with the past 12-month’s use more than doubling from 2.2 percent in 2007 to 5.8 percent in 2012, before somewhat leveling as well.

Past-year use of cocaine demonstrated a clear increase from 2.7 percent in 2013 to 4.4 percent in 2014.

"We are being cautious in interpreting this one-year increase, which we do not see among high school students; but we do see some increase in cocaine use in other young adult age bands, so there may in fact be an increase in cocaine use beginning to occur," Johnston said.

"There is some more welcome news for parents as they send their children off to college this fall. Perhaps the most important is that five out of every 10 college students have not used any illicit drug in the past year, and more than three quarters have not used any in the prior month," he added.

The use of synthetic marijuana (also called K-2 or spice) has been plummeting since its use was first measured in 2011, according to the study. At that time, 7.4 percent of college students indicated having used synthetic marijuana in the prior 12 months. But by 2014 the rate had dropped to 0.9 percent, including a significant decline in use in 2014. One reason for the decline in synthetic drug use is that an increasing number of young people see it as dangerous, researchers believe.

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College students' use of salvia—a hallucinogenic plant that became popular in recent years—fell from an annual prevalence of 5.8 percent in 2009 to just over 1 percent in 2014.

Use of heroin has been very low among college students over the past five years or so, the study found – lower than it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The non-medical use of tranquilizers by college students has also fallen since 2003, when 6.9 percent reported past-year use, to 2014, when 3.5 percent partook.

The use of LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs, once popular on US campuses, remains at low levels of use on campus, with past-year usage rates at 2.2 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively.