“The pandemic seems to have actually made marijuana into an alternative to escape the monotony of isolation,” said Nora Volkow, director of the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “It’s made life become more boring, more stressful. So if drugs let you experience that completely different mental state, I wonder whether that would be a factor that leads people to use them.”
The “Monitoring the Future” study, funded by NIDA, has been tracking drug use among college students and noncollege adults ages 19-22 since 1980. Researchers conducted the 2020 edition of the survey online, querying about 1,550 young adults between March 20, 2020, and Nov. 30, 2020 — after the coronavirus pandemic had hit the United States.
According to the report, 44 percent of college students reported using marijuana in 2020, an increase from 38 percent in 2015. There was also an uptick in “daily or near daily” marijuana usage, which rose from 5 percent to 8 percent in five years.
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At the same time, reported alcohol use among college students dipped from 62 percent in 2019 to 56 percent, with the number of them reporting being drunk in the past month decreasing to 28 percent from 35 percent last year. Binge-drinking — defined as having five or more drinks in one outing at least once in two weeks — fell from 32 percent to 24 percent.
Another trend that emerged from the survey was a four-percentage-point increase in college students using psychedelic drugs, with hallucinogen consumption rising to 9 percent in 2020 from 5 percent in 2019. Among noncollege young adults, use of these drugs increased from 8 to 10 percent.
Although the study does not address the causes behind these tendencies, scientists speculate that the pandemic’s toll on daily life and mental health may be one of the driving forces behind young adults’ consumption patterns.
The historic drop in alcohol intake, for example, coincides with a time marked by isolation, quarantine and a plateauing of social events.
“That’s definitely one the greatest pandemic effects,” said John Schulenberg, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who served as the study’s principal investigator. “We clearly see that young people use alcohol as something to be taken at parties and gatherings. With the pandemic, those weren’t happening, so the alcohol intake and binge drinking dropped.”
With marijuana, the pandemic effects are not as clear, researchers said.
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In the United States, the majority of the population has access to cannabis. Eighteen states have legalized recreational marijuana for adults over age 21, and 37 states have legalized it for medical purposes. The District of Columbia decriminalized marijuana and some psychedelic drugs.
In places where recreational cannabis remains illegal, some students have received medical clearance or used “hemp with Delta-8 THC, which currently inhabits a legal gray zone despite being intoxicating, albeit less so than Delta-9 THC,” Susan A. Stoner, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute, told The Washington Post. Delta-9 THC and Delta-8 THC are two chemical compounds derived from marijuana. The former is the main psychoactive compound that produces the drug’s euphoric effects. The latter is derived from cannabidiol, a.k.a. CBD, and causes a less potent high.
According to Stoner, using substances to reduce anxiety “could increase the risk of development of substance use disorders” or dependence. “Some may also find that cannabis use can acutely increase anxiety, particularly in new users,” she said.
A worrisome finding from the survey, Schulenberg said, the University of Michigan professor, was the record drop in the drug’s perceived risk.
“It’s at an all-time low among the 18- to 20-year-olds, with only 24 percent believing marijuana use poses a great risk of harm,” he said. “And it’s really not just college students, it’s society in general. This can be quite dangerous.”
Turning to drugs as a coping mechanism, Volkow said, is one of the major points of concern scientists are trying to understand, especially with research showing that these substances pose significant harm to young people’s development when they are consumed routinely.
“It’s concerning because we know that marijuana use, and particularly when it is in regular use … it’s associated to the higher risk of psychosis,” she said. “And on the other one, the use of marijuana increasingly being associated with suicidal thinking — all while young people are going through a very significant and stressful situation to begin with.”
A NIDA study she worked on found that marijuana users are more prone to suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts after analyzing data from 280,000 people ages 18-35.
Research regarding the benefits of marijuana for some medical conditions is in its early stages. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, cannabinoids — or chemical compounds found in the plant — have helped patients who have some forms of epilepsy, nausea from chemotherapy, or weight loss associated with HIV/AIDS.
The government agency also notes that cannabis may help ease chronic pain and multiple sclerosis. A study on marijuana and mental health that was published in the Clinical Psychology Review journal found preliminary evidence that the drug can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Since 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved one cannabis-derived drug, Epidiolex, to treat severe childhood epilepsy, as well as three synthetic cannabis-related products — Marinol, Syndros and Cesamet — for cancer chemotherapy nausea and anorexia in AIDS patients.
While more college students seem to be turning to cannabis and psychedelics, the shift underscores the changing nature of drug attitudes. For Schulenberg, who has researched these patterns for about 30 years, the study’s findings reflect the way in which “drugs sort of go away sometimes and then they come back,” he said.
For decades, drug trends have ebbed and flowed. In the 1980s, cocaine was at its peak. Ten years later, heroin. The 2000s were marked by an opioid crisis that continues today. Two years ago, nicotine vaping worried researchers. The use of those substances among young adults has decreased and continue doing so, Schulenberg said — a silver lining among the survey’s findings.
With coronavirus cases still soaring and limiting college-age people’s ability to socialize with one another, Volkow said, the country might be finding itself “at a crossroads.”
“We still haven’t solved the problem of the pandemic, and it’s still generated an enormous amount of stress,” she said. “The mental health consequences of stress from the pandemic will be very persistent, and we’ll persevere after we control the virus. Emotional symptoms of distress place people at risk for taking more drugs.”
Especially, she added, when it comes to young adults.