October 9th, 2017

Marijuana Use In College: Two New Reports

With controversies about cannabis continuing unabated, new evidence is always welcome. This week I will focus on two publications that I think are particularly credible.

The first source is a familiar one. Monitoring the Future, a 42-year project that surveys drug use in youth, recently released their 2016 findings for college students. While alcohol is still the most widely used substance, the use of cannabis was found to be at a 30 year high. What makes this particularly striking is that this increase has occurred despite the fact that use among high school students has not been increasing. The explanation appears to be that the current college environment has for some reason become more conducive to initiating the use of cannabis.

The second publication, from the Netherlands, is perhaps more troubling. A little background information may be useful. Cannabis was decriminalized in the Netherlands and Amsterdam is well known for the availability of cannabis in its “coffeeshops,” more accurately called “cannabis cafes.” The details of Dutch law are in fact quite convoluted and confusing. Concern about the use of cannabis by tourists became sufficient for the Netherlands to pass a law restricting use to residents. This law, however, was not enforced uniformly across the country. Amsterdam and other cities chose not to follow it.

The Dutch city of Maastricht, located in the far south of the country very close to Belgium, did, in fact, enforce this limit. There were some early reports that this resulted in a return of black market activities. Now, according to a recently released study, the reduction in cannabis availability resulted in improved academic performance by college students at Maastricht University. More specifically, the study found that “performance gains are larger for courses that require more numerical/mathematical skills. Our investigation of underlying channels using course evaluations suggests that performance gains are driven by an improved understanding of the material rather than changes in students’ study effort.”

Hopefully, studies will be done in the USA to see if the rise in cannabis use among college students has similar consequences and to what extent the frequency of use is a significant variable.

Final note: The frequency of cannabis use by country (irrespective of age) is not what you might expect. The Netherlands ranks as #20. Usage in the USA is double that in the Netherlands, making it #2 in the world behind only Iceland.

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