College students smoke a lot more weed in legal states, but they also binge drink less, study suggests

College students smoke a lot more weed in legal states, but they also binge drink less, study suggests

There seems to be a tradeoff going on, according to new research

VicesJanuary 16, 2020 By Will Brendza

Apparently, in states where cannabis has been recreationally legalized, rates of cannabis use among college students has also gone up, a new study published in the scientific journal Addiction suggests. It’s a trend that has been observed in every state that has dropped the persecution of the pot flower in favor of legalization.

Sounds intuitive, right? When you legalize something a lot of people (particularly students) like to use, they use more of it. But now there’s a pretty comprehensive study to back that up — obvious as it might seem.

What’s interesting about this recently published research, though, is that a companion study also shows that as pot use among these students has risen, binge drinking has in fact decreased.

 "For marijuana we saw state-specific increases that went beyond the nationwide increases,” explained David Kerr from OSU's College of Liberal Arts, one of the study’s authors. “Whereas binge drinking was the opposite: a greater decrease in the context of nationwide decreases."

That’s curious. Particularly considering the scope of this study: Kerr and his associate Harold Bae, from OSU's College of Public Health, assessed data from seven states and 135 colleges where cannabis had been legalized, and from 41 states and 454 colleges where it was still an illicit substance. It was a lot of data. 

The authors looked at early adopter states as well as the more recent adopters and found that, between 2012 and 2018 rates of use jumped from 21 percent to 34 percent in in the earliest states to legalize recreational cannabis. Whereas in prohibition states it only rose from 14 to 17 percent.

That is to say, students in legal states were 46 percent more likely to have tried cannabis than their peers elsewhere.

That’s not insignificant, and anti-cannabis crusaders will likely use that as ammunition to take shots at the legalization movement. Look, these kids can’t keep themselves away from the pot! They’ll argue. You legalize it and suddenly they’re all on it, they’re all doing the marijuana!

Well, yes, there’s clearly truth to that. But there also seems to be a trade-off going on. Because, a recent companion study to this one showed that in those legal states, there was also a drop in the amount of binge drinking that college students were doing. They found that after legalization, among students 21 and older there was a greater decrease in binge drinking compared to students in states without legal marijuana.

Now, the scientists are hesitant to draw too many assumptions from that observation, but it seems relatively clear (at least to a lay-stoner like myself) that the rise in marijuana consumption and the decrease in binge drinking are correlated at least on some level. There are a lot of people in Colorado who gave up drinking entirely, in favor of marijuana once it was legalized. And many people who, once in a while, just choose to get high instead of drinking out with friends.

This observation seems like a good reason to legalize cannabis nationally. Alcohol is a dangerous drug: it makes people violent, it makes people black out and lose motor functions, it poisons people who drink too much of it, it’s addictive and it can even be lethal when binged.

Marijuana, by contrast, is much chiller: it relaxes and subdues people and there’s never been a lethal overdose. If legalizing cannabis means students (and the public at large) will binge drink less, it seems like a healthier alternative.