Cannabis and the Mission of Higher Education
Despite expanding legalization of recreational marijuana, regular cannabis use has the potential to adversely impact students’ personal happiness and productivity throughout college and for years to follow, says Jon Porter.
In our collective national consciousness, we as a society are becoming quite comfortable with the notion of legalized recreational cannabis. For the most part, we have decided that it’s safe, as reflected in the decline of American high school seniors who perceive great risk in regular marijuana use from 58 percent in 2005 to 31.9 percent in 2015. So it’s not surprising that legalization of cannabis has gained traction at the state level. On Election Day, ballot initiatives legalizing the recreational use of cannabis passed in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada; these states join Alaska, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Oregon and Washington.
On one hand, such developments have very little to do with the policies of most institutions of higher education. In order to comply with the law, institutions that receive federal funding will still need to prohibit the possession of cannabis on their campuses. But on the other hand, if we in higher education are willing to go deeper on this issue, these developments afford colleges and universities the opportunity to clearly articulate the misalignment between regular cannabis use by students and our core institutional mission to fully engage them in intellectual and extracurricular life.
The fact is that regular cannabis use places students at substantially higher risk for impaired mental health, dependence and blunted academic engagement and achievement -- outcomes that are at direct odds with the mission of higher education. Indeed, such use has the potential to adversely impact the trajectory of their personal happiness and productivity for years after college.
Beyond the serious public health concerns associated with acute cannabis impairment, related primarily to operation of a motor vehicle, an emerging body of scientific literature outlines important findings related to the function of the brain -- findings that deserve the serious attention of faculty members, administrators and students. Central to that work is a new appreciation of the highly dynamic nature of brain development during the teenage and young adult years, a process involving the creation of new neural circuits and the pruning of others that is driven by both experiential and genetic forces. It has become apparent that cannabis can adversely impact that development seriously, and this is particularly true when use is regular and/or started at an early age.
With regard to the mental health of our students, the literature highlights disturbing associations between regular cannabis use and the development of psychosis, anxiety and depression. Psychotic events are uncommon but regular occurrences in the traditional college-age population, and as one would expect, have devastating and long-term impacts on both the individual and the family system. Anxiety and depressive disorder, while perhaps less dramatic in presentation, often results in a blunted ability to engage effectively in academic life and to function at one’s potential.
Beyond all this, regular cannabis use impairs cognitive function. Among the impacts noted in the literature is a long-term erosion of executive function, an array of cognitive skills that help us discern important from superfluous information, prioritize tasks, and organize and carry out our day. Each of those outcomes appear to be dose dependent (more likely with regular use) and more likely to occur with earlier age at first use.
The addictive potential of cannabis is an undersold and rarely discussed issue -- one that is all too real for those afflicted. Cannabis use disorder (CUD), a clinical diagnosis arrived at when use results in dysfunction in one or more of life’s arenas -- school, work or interpersonal relationships -- is a real and underappreciated risk of regular use. A 2008 study using face-to-face interviews of more than 1,200 first-year college students noted a 9.7 percent prevalence of CUD among all first-year students and 24.5 percent prevalence among students who reported any use in the preceding year. Recovery from CUD takes years, including a typically prolonged period of time when use is having an adverse, but not yet recognized, impact on a person’s quality of life and performance.
Of significant note, the studies raising concerns about use have been conducted during an era when the potency of cannabis (measured in the percentage of its active ingredient, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) has increased tremendously. Between 1993 and 2008, the potency of cannabis confiscated by law enforcement authorities grew from 3.4 to 8.8 percent. Preparations exceeding 80 percent are now readily available to consumers in states with legalized recreational use (as well as in states that have not legalized recreation use). It is quite likely that the associations between regular cannabis use and the impairments of mental health and cognitive function noted in studies over the past decade will strengthen as new studies enroll subjects who have used more potent cannabis. At this point in time, we simply don’t know how cannabis preparations as potent as those now available will affect the function of the cerebral cortex at the cellular level.
As a higher education community, our thinking about cannabis is at a point where our perceptions regarding the risks of high-risk drinking were decades ago. Not perceiving its serious downsides, we are inclined to accept and even normalize use in consonance with the views of broader society and set a bar far too low.
We have the opportunity to take a very different approach and seize a crucial leadership position in two ways. First, against a rising societal tide of acceptance, we can take it upon ourselves to clearly understand the hazards posed by regular cannabis use to the mental health and to the well-being of our students -- and ultimately to their ability to optimize their engagement in academic and extracurricular life in the process of actualizing their potential. Medical and mental-health service leaders must actively engage this issue to ensure that campus leadership, students, faculty members and student affairs professionals have a common understanding about the insidious downsides of regular use.
Second, senior institutional leadership must clearly articulate the risks it poses to student engagement and the success to every constituency of their learning community. Presidents, provosts, deans and chairs must be clear and consistent in communicating the disconnect between regular use, optimal performance and attainment of the most robust learning environment possible.
Of crucial note, this is not an issue of right or wrong that institutions can meaningfully resolve though prohibition or sanction. The most effective approaches will be those that help students achieve clarity about their goals for this time in their lives -- goals regarding the development of their intellect, their relationship to others and their understanding of the broader world -- and provide them the means to think critically and act effectively in making decisions about what role they want cannabis (along with alcohol and other substances) to play in their journey.
In the final analysis, this is work situated at the very core of our mission in higher education. But it’s work that we can’t do if we passively accept the broader societal messaging about the harmlessness of cannabis. Because of our stake in the healthy development of young minds, we are called to be better informed and more nuanced in our approach to mitigating its impact on our students and our mission.
Jon Porter is director of the University of Vermont Center for Health and Well-being.
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