National study shows marijuana use among U.S. college students remains at highest level in three decades; Heavy marijuana use rising among youth not in college
September 5, 2018
ANN ARBOR—Marijuana use among U.S. college students and same-age youth not in college in 2017 remained at the highest levels seen in past three decades, according to the most recent findings from the national Monitoring the Future Panel Study. Today’s high levels of marijuana use among the nation’s 19-22 year-olds result from a gradual increase over the past decade.
In 2017, 38 percent of full-time college students aged 19-22 reported using marijuana at least once in the prior 12 months, and 21 percent reported using at least once in the prior 30 days. Both of these prevalence levels peaked in 2016, the highest found since 1987, and did not change significantly in 2017. The 2017 prevalence levels represent gradual increases since 2006 (when they were 30 and 17 percent, respectively). Same-age high school graduates who are not full-time college students show a similar trend over time, though their use of marijuana tends to be higher; in 2017, their annual prevalence was 41 percent and 30-day prevalence was 28 percent, remaining at highest levels since the 1980s.
Despite these increases, the 2017 levels are still well below the peaks in use found in the early 1980s for college and noncollege youth, when over half in both groups reported marijuana use in the prior 12 months, and over a third reported use in the prior 30 days. (Findings for young adults were first available in the study in 1980.)
Daily or near daily use of marijuana—defined as having used on 20 or more occasions in the prior 30 days—was at 4.4 percent in 2017 for college students; this has remained steady for the past three years, down from a recent peak of 5.9 percent in 2014. In a rather dramatic contrast, daily marijuana use has continued to rise for same-age noncollege youth, reaching its highest level in 2017 at 13.2 percent, doubling over the past decade (from 6.7 percent in 2006). This gap between college and noncollege youth has widened in the past three years, with daily marijuana use now being three times as high among noncollege youth as among college students.
“The continued increase of daily marijuana use among noncollege youth is especially worrisome,” said John Schulenberg, principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future Panel Study. “The brain is still growing in the early 20s, and the scientific evidence indicates that heavy marijuana use can be detrimental to cognitive functioning and mental health. Getting a foothold on the roles and responsibilities of adulthood may be all the more difficult for these one-in-eight noncollege youth who use marijuana on a daily or near daily basis. As for college students, we know from our research and that of others that heavy marijuana use is associated with poor academic performance and dropping out of college.”
There are multiple reasons for the continuing increase in marijuana use among college students and noncollege youth. One likely reason is the ongoing decline in perceptions of risk of harm from regular marijuana use. In 2017, 27 percent of those aged 19-22 perceived regular use of marijuana as carrying great risk of harm, the lowest level reached since 1980.
“This percentage peaked at 75 percent in 1991, when marijuana use among college students and their non-college age-mates was at historic lows,” said Lloyd Johnston, the original principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future study. “We have consistently seen this inverse relationship between perceptions of risks of harm and actual use, with changes in perceptions of risk typically preceding changes in use.”
In 2017, 12-month and 30-day marijuana use were similar for males and females among both college and noncollege youth. But daily use was higher for college males (6.4 percent) than college females (3.1 percent), and higher for noncollege males (15 percent) than noncollege females (12 percent).
Vaping marijuana, based on new questions added to the surveys in 2017, was slightly higher for noncollege youth than college students. For the two groups respectively, annual prevalence was 14 percent and 11 percent, and 30-day prevalence was 7.8 percent and 5.2 percent. Vaping marijuana tended to be more common among males than females in both groups.
These findings come from the annual national Monitoring the Future Panel Study, which has been tracking substance use among American college students and noncollege youth since 1980. It is conducted by a team of research professors at the University of Michigan, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Results are based on data from college students one to four years beyond high school graduation enrolled full-time in a two- or four-year college in March of the given year, compared with same-age high school graduates not enrolled fulltime in college.
Use of Other Illicit Drugs: No Increases
Annual use of illicit drugs other than marijuana was 18 percent in 2017 for college and noncollege youth. It has declined for both groups since recent highs in 2014. This decline was slight for college students (from 21 percent in 2014) and uneven for noncollege youth (from 25 percent in 2014). Despite the declines for college students, annual prevalence is still among the highest levels reported over the past three decades. This index of illicit drugs other than marijuana consists of numerous illicit drugs, most of which have leveled or declined in use in recent years.
The 2017 annual prevalence of nonmedical use of prescription narcotic drugs (other than heroin), such as OxyContin and Vicodin, was 3.1 percent for college students and 4.1 percent for noncollege youth, the lowest levels reported since the late 1990s. Prevalence peaked in 2006 for college students (at 8.8 percent) and in 2005 for noncollege youth (at 13 percent), and steadily declined for both groups since then.
In contrast to what is true for most other illicit drugs, amphetamine use has been somewhat higher among college than noncollege youth in recent years. The 2017 annual prevalence of nonmedical use of amphetamines was 8.6 percent for college students and 7.3 percent for noncollege youth. Prevalence has declined slightly in recent years for both groups, from recent highs of 11 percent in 2012 for college students and 9.2 percent in 2014 for noncollege youth. Amphetamine use has been somewhat higher among college students than noncollege youth since 2010, likely due in part to college students using them to try to improve their academic performance.
Annual prevalence of MDMA (ecstasy and more recently “Molly”) declined significantly for college and noncollege youth between 2016 and 2017, from 4.7 percent to 2.5 percent for college students and from 8.6 percent to 4.7 percent for noncollege youth. MDMA use peaked in 2001 for both groups (9.2 and 13.6 percent, respectively) and then declined. It made a bit of a comeback during the past decade, with annual prevalence increasing for college students from 2007 (2.2 percent) to 2012 (5.8 percent), and then declining through 2017; for noncollege youth, it increased from 2007 (3.8 percent) to 2016 (8.6 percent) and then declined in 2017.
The use of LSD among college students and noncollege youth has been relatively level in recent years; in 2017, annual prevalence was 2.8 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively. It gradually increased from historic lows in 2005 for college students (0.7 percent) and in 2007 for noncollege youth (1.5 percent). The use of LSD was more common in the early-1980s and mid- to late-1990s, when annual prevalence topped 6 percent for college students and 9 percent for noncollege youth.
Cocaine use among college students has been level in recent years. In 2017, annual cocaine use was 4.8 percent among college students and 5.2 percent among noncollege youth, similar to 2014 through 2016. This constitutes slight increases from recent lows in 2013 for college students (2.7 percent) and in 2012 for noncollege youth (4.1 percent), but far below the historic highs in the mid-1980s (when it topped 17 percent for college students and 21 percent for noncollege youth).
Certain drugs have declined in popularity quite rapidly among the nation’s college students and same-age noncollege youth. For example, annual use of synthetic marijuana, which is usually sold over the counter under such brand names as “K2” and “Spice,” dropped for college students from 8.5 percent when first measured in 2011 to just 0.5 percent in 2017; for noncollege youth, it dropped from 16 percent in 2011 to 2.4 percent in 2017. Annual use of Salvia has fallen from 5.8 percent for college students when its use was first measured in 2009 to just 0.3 percent in 2017; for noncollege youth, it dropped from 8.7 percent in 2009 to 2.5 percent in 2017.
Some other drugs never gained much of a foothold on American college campuses, with annual prevalence being near zero. Drugs for which annual use was below 0.5 percent in 2017 among college students included: heroin, ketamine, methamphetamine, crystal methamphetamine (ice), crack cocaine, “bath salts” (a form of synthetic stimulants), and GHB. This was also true among noncollege youth for heroin and GHB; for the other drugs, 2017 annual prevalence was at 1.5 percent or lower.
In general, college males are more likely than college females to use illicit drugs other than marijuana. But in recent years, some of the gender gaps have decreased, especially among less commonly used illicit drugs. An exception in 2017 was that annual prevalence of amphetamines was slightly higher for college females (9.2 percent) than college males (7.7 percent). Among noncollege youth, the use of many illicit drugs other than marijuana is more common among males than females, though in 2017, this was not true for MDMA, cocaine, salvia, OxyContin, Ritalin, and Adderall. Overall, as noted above, with the exception of amphetamines, illicit drug use tends to be lower among college students compared to same-age non-college youth.
Alcohol Use: Still at high levels despite ongoing declines
Despite ongoing declines, alcohol continues to remain the drug of choice among college students, with 76 percent indicating that they used in the prior 12 months and 62 percent in the prior 30 days in 2017. Indeed, 58 percent say that they were drunk at least once in the prior 12 months and 35 percent in the prior 30 days. Thus, drinking and drunkenness remain commonplace on the nation’s college campuses. Nonetheless, alcohol use has gradually declined among college students since the early 1980s when annual and 30-day prevalence topped 93 percent and 83 percent, respectively. The 2017 levels in annual and 30-day use and drunkenness are the lowest recorded since 1980 when the study began.
Over the years, in contrast to the case for the use of marijuana and most other illicit drugs, alcohol use tends to be higher among college students than same-age noncollege youth, though the downward trends over time have been similar for both groups. In 2017, noncollege annual and 30-day prevalence was 72 percent and 56 percent, respectively. It is noteworthy, however, that in high school, college-bound 12th graders are less involved in alcohol (and other substances) than other 12th graders, indicating that the higher levels of alcohol use among college students compared to same-age non-college youth emerges after high school.
For both 12-month and 30-day alcohol use in 2017, male and female college students report similar prevalence, and the same is true for noncollege males and females. This has been the case for many years, with males and females in both groups showing gradual declines.
Binge drinking—defined as having five or more drinks in a row on at least one occasion in the past two weeks—was reported by 33 percent of college students in 2017; it was 39 percent for college males and 29 percent for college females. Binge drinking has gradually declined among college students over the past thirty years, with more decline for college males than college females, resulting in some closing of the gender gap (though males have consistently had higher prevalence of binge drinking). Across the years, binge drinking has been more common among college students than same-aged non-college youth; in 2017, prevalence was 32% for noncollege males and 26% for noncollege females.
Although having 5 or more drinks in a row can be dangerous, college students often drink at more dangerous levels. This is what is called “high intensity drinking” or “extreme binge drinking,” and is defined as having 10 or more drinks—or even 15 or more drinks—in a row on at least one occasion in the prior two weeks. Over the years 2012 to 2017 combined, about one in ten college students (10.1 percent) reported having 10 or more drinks in a row on at least one occasion in the prior two weeks; 3.1 percent reported having 15 or more drinks in a row at least once in the same interval. Prevalence of high intensity drinking declined somewhat from the previous 2005-2011 period, when it was 13.6 percent for 10 or more drinks and 5.0 percent for 15 or more drinks. These percentages are much higher among college males than females: in 2012-2017, prevalence of 10 or more drinks was 16.2 percent and 6.5 percent for college males and females, respectively; corresponding prevalence of 15 or more drinks was 6.5 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively. Across the years, high intensity drinking has been similar among college and noncollege youth.
“There is good and bad news regarding alcohol use among college students. Alcohol use continues to gradually decline, but excessive drinking clearly remains the major substance use problem on campuses,” said Schulenberg. “Having 10 or more drinks in a row, which is happening for one-in-six college males at least once per two-week period, can result in alcohol poisoning, serious accidents, and a host of unwise decisions and dangerous behaviors that adversely affect them and those around them.”
Tobacco Use: Continued Declines for College Students to Record Lows
Cigarette smoking continues to decline gradually among college students, and the cumulative decline over the past 17 years has been dramatic. A peak rate of any smoking in the prior 30 days was reached in 1999 at 30.6 percent. By 2017 prevalence had fallen by almost three-fourths to 7.9 percent, a record low since 1980 when the study began. Daily smoking declined even more, from 19.3 percent in 1999 to 2.0 percent in 2017—a drop of over nine-tenths, also a record low since 1980. This continued decline in college student cigarette smoking corresponds to what has been found among the nation’s middle and high school students, indicating that this ongoing improvement has its source in fewer teens initiating cigarette smoking.
Cigarette smoking is more common among college males than females, which has been true since 1994 (prior to that, the opposite was true). In 2017, 30-day prevalence was 11.3 percent for college males and 5.8 percent for college females.
Compared to college students, same-aged non-college youth have dramatically higher rates of smoking: in 2017, 22 percent reported prior 30-day smoking (versus 7.9 percent among college students). Daily smoking is even more concentrated among noncollege youth: in 2017 it was 14 percent (versus 2.0 percent among college students). Among noncollege youth, males tend to smoke more than females; 30-day prevalence in 2017 was 24 percent and 19 percent, respectively. Cigarette smoking has been decreasing among non-college youth, but their smoking still remains much higher than among college youth, emphasizing that in the US, cigarette smoking has long been negatively correlated with educational attainment.
With regard to vaping nicotine, based on new questions added to the surveys in 2017, annual prevalence was lower for college students (13 percent) than noncollege youth (21 percent); this was also true regarding 30-day prevalence (6.0 percent versus 7.9 percent, respectively). In both groups, annual and 30-day prevalence was higher for males than for females.
Use of other forms of tobacco, including using a hookah, small cigars, snus, and dissolvable tobacco also have been decreasing among college students to low levels, as was evident in 2017. In particular, annual hookah prevalence, which peaked in 2014 at 33 percent, declined significantly in 2017 to 10 percent for college students. In general, similar declines in these other forms of tobacco use have been evident among noncollege youth.
“The findings regarding tobacco use continue to be an important part of the good news from our study,” noted Schulenberg. “The new record lows in cigarette smoking among college students, combined with declines in the use of other forms of tobacco suggests that today’s college students have been given the context and tools to increasingly avoid tobacco use, a benefit that will accrue with age.”
Contact: Morgan Sherburne, 734-647-1844, [email protected]
Contact: Jared Wadley, 734-936-7819, [email protected]
About the Study
The Monitoring the Future (MTF) follow-up surveys of high school graduates began in 1976. Starting in 1980, data were available from national samples of full-time college students who are one to four years beyond high school and same-age high school graduates not enrolled full-time in college. These annual surveys of approximately 19-22 year olds have ranged between about 1400 and 3000 people per year.
The MTF integrated study is an investigator-initiated research program conceived and conducted by a team of research professors (listed as authors below) at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. It is funded under a series of peer-reviewed, competitive research grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one of the National Institutes of Health.
The MTF Main Study conducts annual surveys of nationally representative samples of high school seniors; for the MTF Panel Study, random, national subsamples are drawn for follow-up in future years. Of these follow-up respondents, those who are one to four years beyond high school and who report being in a 2-year or 4-year college full-time in March comprise the college student sample each year. They are not drawn from particular colleges or universities, which helps to make the sample more representative of the wide range of two-and four-year institutions of higher education in the country. Same-age noncollege youth are high school graduates one to four years beyond high school not enrolled as full-time college students.
The findings presented here are drawn from Chapters 5, 8 and 9 in this newly published monograph:
Schulenberg, J.E., Johnston, L.D., O’Malley, P.M, Bachman, J.G., Miech, R.A., & Patrick, M.E. (2018). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2017: Volume 2, College students and adults ages 19-55. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, 454 pp. Available at