Following a decline in the 1980s, the use of marijuana among college students has steadily risen since the early 1990s. This increase is a concern because it is believed that marijuana may act as a gateway drug, serving as an introduction to additional types of drug use.
The main active chemical in marijuana is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). The membranes of certain nerve cells in the brain contain protein receptors that bind to THC. Once securely in place, THC kicks off a series of cellular reactions that ultimately lead to the high that users experience. When someone smokes marijuana, THC rapidly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream. This carries the chemical to organs throughout the body, including the brain.
Once it enters the brain, THC connects to specific sites called cannabinoid receptors on nerve cells and influences the activity of those cells. Some brain areas have many cannabinoid receptors; others have few or none. Many cannabinoid receptors are found in the parts of the brain that influence memory, pleasure, concentration, thought, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement. THC alters the way information is processed by the hippocampus, a brain area responsible for memory formation. This leads to the damage to short-term memory that users often experience.
Frequent marijuana use may be physically and emotionally harmful. A study by The Harvard School of Public Health found that 9 out of 10 students (91 percent) who use marijuana participate in other high-risk activities such as heavy drinking or cigarette smoking. It is also associated with a variety of other social and behavioral problems, including criminal acts, isolation, and poor academic performance.
According to the Harvard study, other factors associated with marijuana use include spending larger amounts of time at parties and socializing, spending less time studying, and perceiving community service and religion as unimportant. Students at large schools, co-ed schools, and commuter schools were more likely to use marijuana, while students from historically black colleges and colleges in small or rural towns were less likely to use the drug. Marijuana use is also associated with poor academic performance. Students who used marijuana were less likely to study and more likely to have a GPA of B or less.
Marijuana is seen by some college students as a purely recreational drug that serves as a rite of passage in college. Just like with alcohol use, this perception fails to acknowledge the potential dangers of marijuana use. Contrary to popular opinion, marijuana use can be harmful.
The use of alcohol and other drugs may be associated with a wide range of negative consequences. Some of these include decreased academic performance, fighting, vandalism, acquaintance rape, and unprotected sex. While these consequences are associated with marijuana use, there is no evidence that marijuana use directly causes these behaviors to happen.
The specific effects of marijuana use depends on the type of cannabis used, they way in which it is used, the setting in which it is used, the expectations of the user, and whether or not it is used in conjunction with other drugs.
Potential short-term effects of marijuana use include the following:
While there hasn’t been much research done to determine the specific effects of marijuana, according to the American Council for Drug Education there is growing evidence that it may adversely affect the brain, lungs, heart, and immune system. Potential long-term effects of marijuana use include:
Sustained marijuana use may directly affect academic achievement for those that experience difficulty in problem solving and poor memory. Long-term use might also lead to "amotivational syndrome. This is where users are extremely unmotivated in their lives and their achievement of academic, career, and personal goals. Long-term use may also lead to a decreased ability to deal with the stressors that often accompany personal growth and achievement. Marijuana is the “do nothing” drug. Just like in life, there are things in a college experience that one has to do that are not particularly pleasant (like 8am classes). It’s part of achieving an academic degree. It should be noted, however, that whether or not marijuana use causes this syndrome, leads to it, or is merely associated with it has not yet been determined.
Marijuana is the second most frequent drug used by college students. Approximately 46.9% of college students surveyed in 2006 reported using marijuana during their lifetime. The increase in marijuana use was reported among all races and types of students, though the study found that the majority of marijuana users are white. Marijuana use was higher among those who participate in other high-risk behaviors, such as binge drinking, cigarette smoking, and multiple sexual partners. Marijuana use was highest at colleges in the Northeast and lowest in Southern colleges. It was also highest at colleges considered to be “very competitive,” and lowest at those considered “not competitive.”
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