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UT research links states’ medical marijuana laws with increased use among college students

A University of Toledo study has found college students in states that have legalized medical marijuana are twice as likely to use the drug than students living in states that broadly prohibit marijuana.

Those students also are more likely to use marijuana on campus and believe their peers would be more accepting of their use of the drug than their peers in states that do not allow medical marijuana.

“Medical marijuana laws have to some extent normalized marijuana use,” said Dr. Tavis Glassman, a professor in the UT School of Population Health and one of the study’s authors. “The presence of permissive laws may lead some people to believe incorrectly that the drug is not harmful.”

Glassman worked with Dr. Amy Thompson, interim associate vice provost of faculty affairs and a professor in the UT School of Population Health, and Dr. Alexis Blavos, who earned her PhD at The University of Toledo and is an assistant professor at the State University of New York, to analyze a 2013 survey of more than 34,000 college students from 37 states about their drug usage.

The UT researchers separated out the approximately 3,100 students who were attending school in states with legalized medical marijuana to compare their experiences against those students who did not reside in states with medical marijuana laws.

They identified a number of correlations between more permissive marijuana laws and increased drug usage.

Among their findings:

• Students attending college in states that allow medical marijuana were twice as likely to have used marijuana in the last 30 days than those in states without medical marijuana laws.

• Students attending college in states that allow medical marijuana were significantly more likely to use tobacco, cocaine, opiates and synthetic designer drugs.

• Students attending college in states that allow medical marijuana reported higher rates of negative consequences associated with their substance use, regretting their actions, and suffering academic challenges.

The study was published recently in the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice.

“There’s this momentum to pass medical marijuana laws throughout the country, and there’s often not enough research being done on what the side effects can be,” Thompson said. “However, there is some related research by others that has found an increase in emergency room visits and mental health issues.”

The researchers said the findings highlight the need for more robust programming on drug and alcohol education and prevention on college campuses, as well as for state legislators to more deeply consider the direct and indirect health outcomes associated with passing medical marijuana laws.

“The take-home message of this is that, in some ways, when people have more access to marijuana, it creates more of a social norm that it’s OK to use it, so we see usage go up as a result,” Thompson said. “Just because something is legalized or considered to be a prescription-type drug doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good or healthy for recreational use. There are health risks associated with its use.”