When it comes to the substances consumed by college students and college-aged adults, changes are afoot.
That’s the broad takeaway from 2020 Monitoring the Future study data released on Wednesday. Each year, the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) funds researchers at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research to look at substance consumption among students nationwide. The data released this week focused specifically on 1,550 college-aged adults surveyed between March and November 2020, a time when COVID-19 began to spread in much of the United States.
One significant finding is that cannabis consumption among college-aged adults has hit, to quote NIDA, an “historic high.” Much of the shift comes from a rise in consumption among those in college: while past year consumption among those not in college has remained steady around 43%, it jumped from 38% in 2015 to 44% in 2020 among those in college. That same jump can be seen in daily consumption, which has remained steady for those not in college at 13%, but rose from 5% to 8% among those in college during that same time period.
Also of note among college students: a rise in hallucinogen consumption and a decline in alcohol consumption. The percentage of college students who reported consuming, for example, psilocybin or LSD, in the past year rose from 5% in 2019 to nearly 9% in 2020. And when it came to alcohol consumption, specifically drinking or getting drunk in the past month, those percentages fell from 62% to 56% and 35% to 28%, respectively, between 2019 and 2020. When it comes to non-students, NIDA described the data on both substances as “consistent” and “stable.”
It is difficult to determine which of these shifts among college students is linked to the effects of the pandemic on how and where and with whom these students spent their time. John Schulenberg, the lead researcher on the study, noted that cannabis and hallucinogen consumption were on the rise before the pandemic. With alcohol, though, Schulenberg told Cannabis Wire that “it is likely that the pandemic played an important role in the large drop in alcohol use among college students,” due to a decrease in social opportunities. “More controlled analyses are needed,” he continued, “but if this is a pandemic effect, then college drinking will likely rebound this coming academic year.”
Schulenberg noted that his team had “two hours to add in pandemic related questions before finalizing the surveys,” so it is the forthcoming surveys that will provide a clearer picture on how the pandemic affected these shifts. Data collection is underway now, through October, and questions will focus on how COVID-19 has affected and is affecting “living arrangements, educational experiences, future hopes, mental health, and drug use,” Schulenberg said, adding, “we will have more to say about possible pandemic effects next year, including the extent to which such effects are blips [versus a] long-term change in course.”
NIDA director Nora Volkow, in a statement about the findings, echoed the need for further research on how COVID-19 factored into substance consumption and “the impact of these shifts over time.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the way that young people interact with one another and offers us an opportunity to examine whether drug taking behavior has shifted through these changes,” Volkow said.
The survey showed declines among college students when it came to other substances, too, such as amphetamines and opioids (that are not prescribed) and cigarettes.