The Surprising Effect of Marijuana Legalization on College Students

After Oregon legalized the drug, its use went up—but mainly among teens who also binge-drink.

Timothy J. Gonzalez / AP

For Oregon, legalizing recreational marijuana has proven lucrative: In 2016 alone, marijuana tax receipts in the state totaled more than $60 million. Now, researchers are beginning to understand how all that weed has affected the drug habits of college students.

A new study in the journal Addiction finds that, after legalization, the use of marijuana among students at an Oregon college increased relative to that of students in states where the drug is still illegal. But, in a twist, the rise was mainly seen among those students who had also reported drinking heavily recently. The Oregon students who binge drank were 73 percent more likely to also report using marijuana, compared to binge-drinking students in states that didn’t legalize marijuana.

The authors, researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Michigan, note that this could be because teens who drink heavily might be more open to other forms of substance use—either because they are bigger risk-takers, or less religious, or for some other reason. (The authors looked at both smoking pot and eating cannabis-laced edibles.)

“Those who binge drink may be more open to marijuana use if it is easy to access,” said David Kerr, lead author of the study and an Oregon State psychology professor, in a statement.  “Whereas those who avoid alcohol for cultural or lifestyle reasons might avoid marijuana regardless of its legal status.”

Even though marijuana use and sales in Oregon are only legal over the age of 21, the authors found that students under 21 were actually more likely to use the drug than older students were. That’s somewhat worrisome, since the brains of the younger students would still be vulnerable to pot’s potentially deleterious effects.

In spite of this study, it’s still not clear whether recreational marijuana legalization leads to a mass uptick in getting high. Teens overall have grown more accepting of marijuana in recent years, and this study found that pot use was on the rise in colleges in almost all the states. Past studies have found that following legalization, marijuana use went up among 8th and 10th graders in Washington state, but not in Colorado, or among high-school seniors in either state.

Interestingly, though, this study does suggest that legal marijuana, at least among college kids, does not seem to have much of a substitution effect. Contrary to the predictions of some legalization enthusiasts, teens don’t seem to be foregoing binge drinking—arguably a more physically harmful practice—in order to smoke weed. Instead, they’re doing both.

We still need more studies to know if that will be the case for adults, or for college students in other states. In some ways, it’s good news that legalization didn’t seem to induce students who are otherwise drug-averse to start smoking pot in large numbers. But this paper does poke a hole in one popular health-based argument for legalizing marijuana: that doing so will make it replace alcohol.