Marijuana Use at Highest Level in Three Decades Among High-School and College Students

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The recent annual National Monitoring the Future Panel Study depicted record high marijuana use rates among college students and youth not in college in the past three decades.

Crucial data depicting marijuana and other substance abuse statistics among young adolescents, and emerging trends such as vaping are on the rise. Why it is essential to pay attention, particularly at this age?

According to the yearly national Monitoring, the Future Panel Study, marijuana consumption rates among college students have hit a record high in the past three decades since 2016, and the trend continued throughout the year of 2017. The gradual increases over the past decade have now exploded into skyrocketed rates of cannabis use among the nation’s population constituting of 19-to-22-year-olds, including those not in college.

Since the mid-1960s, when illicit drug use rapidly spread in the general youth population, substance use has remained a major concern for the nation, like smoking, drinking and illegal drug use now stand as the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in adolescents. Adolescent substance abuse has proven to be a rapidly changing phenomenon, continually demanding assessments and reassessments.

Marijuana smoking, edibles, vaping and other forms of administration have increased dramatically among adolescents. This is problematic as basic and clinical science has accumulated yet more evidence about the effects of marijuana and the related compounds on young people and the developing brain.

The results of the recent findings from the University of Michigan were published earlier in September 2018.

Skyrocketing Marijuana Use Rates

In 2017, reportedly 38 percent of full-time college students, aged 19 to 22 years, used marijuana at least once in the past 12 months, and 21 percent disclosed using at least once in the past 30 days. These prevalence levels reached a record high in 2016 which has been recorded as the highest level found since 1987.

Gold Graph going upNo significant changes were noticed in these rates in 2017. The 2017 prevalence levels depicted measured increases since 2006 when the yearly use rate stood at 30 percent, and monthly use was 17 percent.

Same-age high school graduate population, who were not full-time college students, displayed similar trends over time. Their consumption of marijuana, however, tended to be higher. In 2017, the annual consumption prevalence stood at 41 percent and the monthly consumption prevalence was 28 percent, these standings were at the highest levels since the 1980s.

The year 2017 saw 12-month and 30-day marijuana consumption rates to be identical for males and females among both college and non-college young adolescents. However, daily use was higher for males than females in both groups.

Diminishing Trends in Perceived Risk

Since 1996, 30 states have passed legislation that legalizes medical cannabis. Ostensibly, they have also stated that underage use is illegal. Nine of these states have also legalized the use of recreational cannabis.

As a result, adult use and related opinion surveys have consistently relayed favorable public opinion regarding marijuana use with lowered perceived risks and greater public acceptance. Combined with legalization efforts, extensive advertising, and publicity through social and other media have maintained a steady decline in perceptions of risk of harm from regular marijuana use and a corresponding increase in consumption.

In 2017, only 27 percent of young adults, aged 19-22, regarded the regular use of marijuana as carrying a great risk of harm, the lowest level since 1980.

Marijuana use disorders have been increasing as the dosage of THC and regular use have risen. Everyday use or near daily use of marijuana, characterized as consumption on 20 or more occasions in the past month, stood at 4.4 percent in 2017 for college students.

Contrarily, daily marijuana-use steadily rose for same-age non-college young adults, reaching a sharply contrasting highest level in 2017 at 13.2 percent. This rate has increased by almost twice over the past decade (from 6.7 percent in 2006).

In 1971, 75 percent of those surveyed in college admitted they regarded marijuana as dangerous and considered regular use to hold great potential for harm. Hence, use among this population of young people was quite low.

This gap between college and non-college youth has widened over the past three years, as daily marijuana use is now three times as high among non-college youth as among college students.

“The continued increase of daily marijuana use among noncollege youth is especially worrisome,” stated John Schulenberg, principal investigator of the study. “The brain is still growing in the early 20s, and the scientific evidence indicates that heavy marijuana use can be detrimental to cognitive functioning and mental health.”

Woman at work struggling with addiction“Getting a foothold on the roles and responsibilities of adulthood may be all the more difficult for these one-in-eight noncollege youth who use marijuana on a daily or near daily basis.,” Schulenberg continued.

“As for college students, we know from our research and that of others that heavy marijuana use is associated with poor academic performance and dropping out of college.”

Since 1975, between 80 percent and 90 percent of 12th graders, each year have said that marijuana would be fairly or very easy to get if they wanted some, with that figure standing at 80 percent in 2017.

Rising Popularity of Vaping

Initiated first in 2017, the research professors conducting the annual National Monitoring the Future Panel Study included questions about vaping marijuana at the past 30-day interval, the previous 12-month interval and in the student’s lifetime. These are the first of its kind national estimates of marijuana vaping.

One in ten 12th grade students reported vaping in the past 12 months, and the prevalence was 8 percent for 10th grade and 3 percent for 8th-grade students. In each grade, more than one-fourth of students who had used marijuana had experienced vaping it as well. These levels are significantly high, considering that vaping was practically unknown among adolescents just five years ago.

Thirty-day prevalence of vaping marijuana, based on new questions added to the surveys in 2017, was slightly higher for noncollege youth (7.8 percent) than college students (5.2 percent). Vaping marijuana tended to be more common among males than females in both groups.

Other Results from the Study

• This University of Michigan annual study also examined the use of other illicit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. In 2017, use of most substances remained steady or decreased somewhat. Annual prevalence of nonmedical use of prescription narcotic drugs, such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, was lowest since the late 1990s, falling at 3.1 percent for college students and 4.1 percent for the non-college population.

  • Contrarily, nonmedical amphetamine use was higher among college than noncollege youth over the past few years. The 2017 annual prevalence was 8.6 percent for college students and 7.3 percent for noncollege youth.
  • 2017 found 30-day cigarette smoking among college students at a record low of 7.9 percent, as a result of a consistent decline over the past 18 years. The rate, however, was higher for non-college youth being at 22 percent in 2017.
  • Annual prevalence of MDMA experienced a significant decline for both college and noncollege youth. From 2016 to 2017, prevalence levels fell from 4.7 to 2.5 percent for college students and from 8.6 to 4.7 percent for non-college youth.
  • Alcohol maintained its status as the drug of choice among college students. 33 percent of college students reported binge drinking in 2017. Even though the trend has gradually diminished over the years, it remains more popular among college males than females, and more common among college students than noncollege youths.

Importance of Addressing Adolescent Marijuana Use

Man addicted to alcoholIt is vital to keep in mind that regular cannabis use can become problematic and lead to dependence and addiction.

Individuals who initiated marijuana use before age 18 are 4 to 7 times more likely than adults to develop problem use. Some studies have linked marijuana use as precedent to future addictions to alcohol and other substances.

Long-term use has been linked to mental illness in some users, such as temporary hallucinations, temporary paranoia and worsening symptoms in patients with schizophrenia. Furthermore, the second-hand effects of smoking on non-smokers cannot be trivialized.

Lastly, and most troubling for teens, is the recent body of research has shown that use in teenage years can cause cognitive problems, which can be long-lasting. New research, attempting to show that teens have more issues with maintaining reasoning and intellectual problems due to alcohol, found marijuana effects to be more profound and long-lasting.

As new cannabis products have made their way into the market, THC may often be higher as users experiment with doses and routes of administration. The THC content in marijuana has been increasing since the 1980s.

This can lead to emergency room visits and even addiction for regular exposure. It is vital to raise awareness in schools, including among students and parents, regarding the long-term effects of marijuana on a developing brain and well ahead into adult life.

Associated effects like unsafe driving under the influence and poorer academic performance need to be discussed to dissuade mindless consumption of marijuana.


  • NIDA (2016). Marijuana. Retrieved February 16, 2017, from National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

About the Author:

Mark GoldMark S. Gold, M.D.  served as Professor, the Donald Dizney Eminent Scholar, Distinguished Professor and Chair of Psychiatry from 1990-2014. Dr. Gold was the first Faculty from the College of Medicine to be selected as a University-wide Distinguished Alumni Professor and served as the 17th University of Florida’s Distinguished Alumni Professor.
Learn more about Mark S. Gold, MD

About the Transcript Editor:

Sana Ahmed photoA journalist and social media savvy content writer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana Ahmed has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.

Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. Her recent work has largely been focused upon mental health and addiction recovery.

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Published on October 8, 2018
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 8, 2018
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