College Students, Marijuana Use and Academic Performance

What’s New in Psychology?

College Students, Marijuana Use and Academic Performance    

Jim Windell


            Eighteen states have legalized cannabis – marijuana – for non-medical or recreational purposes. That means that in those states, especially, access to marijuana has increased for all adults – particularly for college students over 21 years of age.

           It may not be surprising then that marijuana use among college students reached levels in 2020 that had not been seen since the 1980s. That’s according to the latest research from Monitoring the Future an annual survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. The Monitoring the Future survey tracks emerging trends in illicit drug, alcohol, and tobacco use among American adolescents, college students, and young and middle-aged adults.

           The past three reports from Monitoring the Future have shown that between 43% and 44% of college students report any cannabis use in the past year. That was an increase from the 38% of college students who reported marijuana use in 2015.

           Previous research has consistently shown that people report using marijuana in order to feel the high, experience enhanced feelings, increase social connections or cope with certain feelings and moods. It was found early in the pandemic that was some reduction in the use of marijuana for celebratory reasons and slight increases in using marijuana because of boredom – which may have been due to initial physical distancing mandates and stay-at-home orders.

            Writing in the opinion website The Conversation, Jason R. Kilmer and Christine M. Lee, both University of Washington School of Medicine researchers who study marijuana use among college students, speculate on how smoking weed affects the academic performance of college students.

           Kilmer and Lee, commenting as researchers who work with college students, indicate that they hear students say that marijuana is “safe,” “natural” or that it’s “just weed.” However, Kilmer and Lee point out that research tells a very different story about potential risks. And there are greater potential risks with the high potency cannabis that tends to dominate the markets in states where cannabis has been legalized. Furthermore, Kilmer and Lee note that published research consistently shows that the more frequently a college student uses cannabis, the lower their GPA tends to be, the more likely they are to report skipping classes and the longer it takes them to graduate.

           Previous studies over several years have also concluded that perhaps the most direct impact to academic performance is a relationship between marijuana use and impaired attention and memory. The good news, according to the authors, is that studies that follow people as they abstain show that when marijuana use stops, cognitive performance improves, though it can take 28 days of abstinence for that to begin to happen. The effects of cannabis use depends on how often someone uses and the type or potency of marijuana they are using. “But whatever the case,” Kilmer and Lee write, “it certainly seems that the more frequently people use, the more likely they are to experience challenges with attention, memory and other cognitive abilities.”

           The two researchers published an article in August, 2021 in which they wrote about recommended guidelines for lower-risk cannabis use. In that article, Kilmer and Lee concluded that people who use cannabis and experience impaired cognitive performance should think about taking a break or significantly reducing how much they use, or the potency of what they use.

           “In our conversations with college students, we hear some students who typically use marijuana say that when they don’t use, they can’t sit still, or they feel restless and anxious,” the authors report. “These students might assume that marijuana use is ‘helping’ them.” Unfortunately, they go on to say, the anxiety and restlessness these college students experience when not using marijuana could be symptoms of withdrawal. “Those things could also be indicative of addiction to cannabis, or what is called a cannabis use disorder,” they state. “This might mean when students continue to use marijuana, they might feel a sense of less anxiety or restlessness, but are actually making withdrawal symptoms stop by resuming use.”

           Jason Kilmer and Christine Lee point out that they are not aware of any research that suggest academic or educational benefits of using marijuana. Additionally, they say that THC levels, the psychoactive component typically associated with the “high” from marijuana, has markedly increased since the 1970s when it was generally under two percent. Today, especially in legal markets, the concentrations of THC are much higher. In one study, it was found to be above 20 %, while concentrates, which include dabs, hash oil and other products, routinely exceed 60%.

           The use of high potency cannabis is associated with a number of outcomes, including greater risk of cannabis use disorder and adverse mental health outcomes. And it is young people who may be particularly vulnerable to these harmful effects.

           To read the original story in The Conversation, find it at:





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