Marijuana and Alcohol Use Changes in College-Aged Youth

Binge Drinking in College Students at Party

Within the last 20 years, there have been changes in marijuana and alcohol use in college-aged youth [1]. It is important to be aware of these changes because it can help colleges, loved ones, and health professionals better grasp how to support this population.

Marijuana Use and Effects

Since 2002, there has been an increase in marijuana use in college-aged people [1]. While marijuana is often believed to not be addictive, research shows that it is [1]. As rates of marijuana use increase, so do the amount of college-aged people who are becoming addicted to cannabis [1].

Marijuana seems to be the main substance of choice among this population, as alcohol abstinence increases [1]. While this is good, it’s not a good representation of what is really going on in this group of people.

As more youth turn to marijuana instead of alcohol, some college students use both [1]. Students who become addicted to both alcohol and cannabis are also more likely to abuse other drugs like prescription pills or illicit drugs [1]. Illicit drugs include cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, and methamphetamines.

While some may argue that substance use is simply part of college culture, it’s important to be aware of the risks of using substances, especially as a young adult. For individuals ages 18 to 22, the brain is still developing in really important ways [2]. The full understanding of how substances impact the brain is still unknown.

However, researchers have discovered that substance abuse during this phase of brain development can negatively impact someone’s ability to learn, accomplish advanced decision-making and memory [2]. It is also helpful to be aware of how brain development during this phase of life can place individuals at increased risk for drug use.

During the college-aged years, an individual is still considered an adolescent. Adolescence ends around age 24. Adolescent brains are essentially ruled more by emotion than by logical thinking [2]. This can lead to more risk-taking and a desire for new experiences.

This phase of life places someone more at risk for drug use [2]. This is because if emotion is the ruling force, then short-term benefits are more appealing than long-term consequences. This also can make someone more vulnerable to peer pressure. This places college-aged youth at risk for peer-pressure-induced drug use as substances are often part of college culture.

How To Support Those Who are Using

College Friends supporting each other through marijuana addictionWhat we know about adolescent brain development and current trends in substance use (particularly alcohol and marijuana) in college-aged youth can help shape how we approach prevention and treatment. It’s not only important that we do this for the well-being of our youth, but also for the health of our society as a whole.

Addiction has individual, familial, societal, and legal implications. Colleges and other communities that are popular among this population should implement prevention programs and other supportive resources. There are a variety of drug-prevention strategies.

Two specific ideas for college-aged youth are education about adolescent brain development and how substances can impact this, and teaching ways to cope with peer pressure and other drug-resistance strategies [2].

If someone already has a drug problem, then it is important to refer them to treatment. Implementing screening tools on college campuses and in healthcare settings can help to identify if someone is struggling.

This is helpful becomes sometimes people with addiction issues are in denial about the severity of the issue. Educating college and university staff, parents, and students, about the signs of addiction to marijuana, alcohol, and more, can also be helpful in referring someone to treatment.

There are a variety of ways that, as a society, we can continue addressing the growing substance abuse problem in college-aged youth. It’s critical that we do so.


[1] McCabe, S.E., Arterberry, B.J., Dickinson, K., Evans-Polce, R.J., Ford, J.A., Ryan, J.E., Schepis, T.S (2020). Assessment of changes in alcohol and marijuana abstinence, co-use, and use disorders among US young adults from 2002 to 2018. Jama Pediatrics.

[2] Winters, K.C., Arria, A. (2011). Adolescent brain development and drugs. The prevention researcher, 18(2), 21-24.

About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on December 9, 2020
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 9, 2020
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Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.