The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a division of the National Institutes of Health, recently published the results of its annual study comparing drug and alcohol use trends of college students versus their peers not in college.

Marijuana use among college students is now at “the highest level in over three-and-a-half decades” with a 6% increase in use from 2015 to 2020. Additionally, the use of hallucinogens increased by 4% from 2019 to 2020. Cigarette use, as well as abuse of amphetamines and opioids all decreased over the same five-year period.

Of interest, alcohol use among college age students dramatically lowered over the course of 2020. The study authors also note that the COVID-19 pandemic played a large role in changing social and behavioral patterns for this time, although there is no significant link between the two. In 2019, 62% of college students had consumed alcohol in the past 30 days and 35% were intoxicated in the previous 30 days. In 2020, those numbers fell to 56% and 28% respectively, although it is unclear whether this trend will continue as students return to campus.

Moreover, as nationwide views on marijuana use have shifted dramatically such that it is often considered a ‘safe’ drug and is used in various forms, now more than ever higher education leaders must be vigilant to combat this message of normalization as a hinderance to student learning. In 2019, ACTA’s report Addressing College Drinking And Drug Use” discussed the need for high-level engagement by trustees and provided examples of best practices and successful programs.

A spring 2021 webinar hosted by ACTA also highlighted these issues focusing on substance use on campuses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A distinguished group of panelists including Robert L. Dupont, M.D., Amelia M. Arria, Ph.D., Ellen Rome, M.D., M.P.H., and Caleb S. Boswell, L.L.P.C., N.C.C., reinforced the message that we must prioritize mental health and we must normalize substance-free behavior. Campus leaders and administrators must continue to correct misperceptions about the safety of marijuana. They must also highlight students who are substance-free; showcasing that substance use does not need to be the standard. Both marijuana and hallucinogens are often turned to in times of isolation (such as the COVID-19 pandemic) to feel better while worsening the problem. Students need places on campus they can go to where they can gather, talk, and have a space they feel safe in to express themselves without the need for alcohol or drugs.  


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