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Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014). The share of young adults who have used cannabis has dramatically increased while the age of first use has declined (Hall, 2006). Nearly 30% of students entering college have use marijuana (C. K. Suerken, Reboussin, Sutfin, Wagoner, Spangler, & Wolfson, 2014), and currently one-third of college students have reported consuming marijuana annually (Johnston, O'Malley, Bachman, Schulenberg, & Miech, 2014; Mohler-Kuo, Lee, & Wechsler, 2003).

A concerning trend is the increasing number of college students whom use marijuana on a regular basis. Marijuana use by college students has increased steadily, resulting in a 30 year high of daily marijuana consumption by college students, with one out of every 20 college students consume marijuana on a daily basis (Johnston et al., 2014).

This paper examines the differences in marijuana consumption as well as access to marijuana for college students enrolled in either a large state institution or a small liberal arts college. Although much has been published in the area of marijuana consumption among college students, a gap in the literature exists in scrutinizing behavioral differences between college students enrolled in either small or large institutions of higher learning. Given the differences in social life, culture, and resources at these different types of schools, it is important to understand and tailor any policies with these differences in mind.

Peers are influences of marijuana use (Barnett, Ott, Rogers, Loxley, Linkletter, & Clark, 2014) as approximately 93% of college marijuana use occurred in social settings where other college students were consuming marijuana (Buckner, Crosby, Silgado, Wonderlich, & Schmidt, 2012). Witnessing such behavior may increase the perception that marijuana smoking is a normal and expected behavior during college. Social norms have been shown to strongly predict more frequent marijuana use (Buckner, 2013). College students who are less likely to witness marijuana consumption within the college environment such as those who attend commuter colleges, where students traditionally drive to campus for their classes and then leave campus, are less likely to use marijuana (Bell, Wechsler, & Johnston, 1997).

Marijuana consumption among college students is concerning as negative health outcomes have been associated with this behavior. Marijuana use is correlated with overall negative well-being (Fleming, Mason, Mazza, Abbott, & Catalano, 2008) and worse health outcomes than non-users (Arria, Caldeira, Bugbee, Vincent, & O'Grady, 2016). Smoking marijuana has been correlated to lung cancer (Mehra, Moore, Crothers, Tetrault, & Fiellin, 2006), respiratory tract carcinoma (Taylor, 1988), increased the risk of head and neck cancer (Zhang, Morgenstem, Spitz, Tashkin, Yu, Marshall, Hsu, & Schantz, 1999), testicular germ cell tumors (TGCT) (Daling, Doody, Sun, Trabert, Weiss, Chen, Biggs, Starr, Dey, & Schwartz, 2009), and an increased risk of prostate cancer (Sidney, Quesenberry, Friedman, & Tekawa, 1997). Marijuana use has also been associated with an increased risk of ovarian cyst cancer for underweight and normal-weight females (Holt, Cushing-Haugen, & Daling, 2005), as well as an increased risk of cervical cancer (Sidney et al., 1997).

Individuals with a lifetime history of cannabis use are at increased risk of a psychosis outcome (Nordentoft & Hjorthoj, 2007; van Os, Bak, Hanssen, Bijl, deGraaf, & Verdoux, 2002). Marijuana use may trigger schizophrenia in persons who are vulnerable to the disorder, and marijuana may also be used to "self-medicate" schizophrenia symptoms (Hall, 2006). Heavy cannabis use at the age of 18 increased the risk of later schizophrenia six-fold (Arseneault, Cannon, Poulton, Murray, Caspi, & Moffitt, 2002). Marijuana use during adolescence was linked to lower levels of life satisfaction and an increased risk of major depressive disorder (Georgiades & Boyle, 2007). Those whose marijuana use declined over time have better mental health outcomes than individuals whom maintained stable marijuana use consistent with their early 20s (Arria et al., 2016).

Chronic marijuana users have also been shown to have impairments in attention, memory, and the ability to process complex information for months or even years after ceasing marijuana consumption (Ashton, 2001). Marijuana users have shown deficits in mathematical skills and verbal expression (Block & Ghoneim, 1993); as well as lower GPAs (Cynthia K. Suerken, Reboussin, Egan, Sutfin, Wagoner, Spangler, & Wolfson, 2016), issues with academic motivation (Phillips, Phillips, Lalonde, & Tormohlen, 2015), and lower levels of education completion (Georgiades & Boyle, 2007; Gruber, Pope, Hudson, & Yurgelun-Todd, 2003). Marijuana use has been associated with a higher risk of ending enrollment in college (Arria, Garnier-Dykstra, Caldeira, Vincent, Winick, & O'Grady, 2013).

In addition to health risks marijuana users face potential legal risks. These range from smalls fines to felony convictions. State laws vary greatly concerning marijuana possession with monetary penalties and criminal classifications dependent on the quantity. Only 10 states have removed the felony classification for marijuana possession, meaning that marijuana possession of certain amounts can lead to a felony conviction even in states, which have legalized marijuana use.

A felony conviction can have severe negative impacts on young adults, such as a loss of financial resources for education. Under the Drug Free Student Loan Act of 1998, students who are convicted of a drug offense are temporarily or permanently ineligible for student loans or grants (Blumenson & Nilsen, 2002).

Penalties, both in monetary terms and/ or imprisonment, are inadequate deterrents primarily due to the fact that they remain mostly unknown by the offenders. Individuals are generally poor judges of the certainty and severity of criminal sanctions (Apel, 2013), with approximately one-third of households not knowing what the maximum penalty for marijuana possession is in their state (Pacula, Kilmer, Grossman, & Chaloupka, 2007).

It should be noted that some studies have demonstrated the efficacy of medical marijuana for specific patients. Cannabis has been shown to reduce chronic pain, neuropathic pain, and spasticity due to multiple sclerosis (Hill, 2015). It has also been shown to improve pain, appetite, and nausea among cancer patients (Waissengrin, Urban, Leshem, Garty, & Wolf, 2015), and to improve appetite (Woolridge et al., 2005) and caloric intake for HIV patients (Haney, Rabkin, Gunderson, & Foltin, 2005). However, recreational marijuana consumption among college students mostly falls outside of medicinal purposes.


Approximately six weeks into the Spring 2016 semester currently enrolled college students were e-mailed a link to an online survey through their assigned university e-mail address. The survey remained active for three weeks, and e-mail reminders were not sent to students during this time. The overwhelming majority of participants completed the survey within 48 hours of receiving the e-mail. Partially completed surveys were not included in this analysis. E-mail addresses were obtained through the respective institution's registrar or advising office. The e-mail at the state university was distributed to students in one of the largest schools on campus and the total on-campus traditional student body at the liberal arts college. Evening, satellite, and online students were not included in this analysis. The survey was distributed to students attending college in a state that does not allow for medical or recreational marijuana use, nor is marijuana decriminalized. The response rate was 9.3% at the state university and 19% at the liberal arts college.

The electronic survey consisted of 31 multiple-choice questions concerning, but not limited to, students' demographic characteristics, marijuana consumption, alcohol consumption, tobacco use, GPA, residency setting, awareness of criminal penalties for marijuana possession, and perception of harm of consuming marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco. No personally identifiable information was collected.

Alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana perception of harm questions were collected via a Lickert scale based on questions used in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Possible perception of harm responses were "not harmful, slightly harmful, moderately harmful, very harmful, or don't know." Participants were provided an option of 0-30 or "don't know" for questions related to days alcohol, tobacco, and/or marijuana were consumed over the past 30 days.

Institutional Review Board approval was received for this study and only students whom provided informed consent were given access to the survey. Participants did not receive any form of compensation for participating in the survey. SPSS version 24 was used in this analysis.


The demographics for participants (N=309) at both the liberal arts college and the state university are similar (Table 1). Mean age at the liberal arts college was 22.94 versus 20.44 at the state university. Of the participants, 65% were female at the liberal arts college compared to 81% at the state university. White students comprised 88% percent of participants at both schools, with 67% living off campus at the liberal arts college compared to 75% at the state university respectively.

Students at the state university have more self-reported access to and consume marijuana at a higher rate than those attending a liberal arts college. As seen in Table 2, a greater number of state university students (46.9%) have consumed marijuana within the past 30 days, compared to those enrolled at the liberal arts college (31.3%). Of students at a state university, 47.5% indicate they can obtain marijuana in less than 30 minutes, compared to 40.6% at the liberal art college. State university students indicate that marijuana is significantly more prevalent than their senior year of high school (41.0%), compared to liberal art students (27.0%).

For those attending parties within the past 6 months, 80.8% of state university students report marijuana use present at a party, versus 49.6% for liberal art college students. A greater number of state university students have purchased marijuana since beginning college (41.6%), versus those at a liberal arts college (27.9%).

Differences in marijuana consumption exists based on where a student currently resides. For those residing in an on campus dorm or apartment just over 24% indicated that they have consumed marijuana within the past month compared to almost 41% of those who reside off campus. Of those residing on campus, 30.77% indicate that they can get marijuana in less than 30 minutes, versus 49.69% for those residing off campus. Students residing off campus at both the liberal arts college and the state university report similar access to marijuana in less than 30 minutes, 48.44% to 49.47% respectively. While 23.33% of those living on campus at the liberal arts college report having access to marijuana in less than 30 minutes compared to 40.91% of on campus residents at the state school.

The perception of harm for consuming alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana also varies among college students at the differing institutions. Table 3 displays the self-reported level of risk in consuming these goods at least once a week as very harmful.

Overall, 13.9% of college students indicated that consuming marijuana at least once a week is very harmful for one's health, with 8.5% deemed weekly alcohol consumption as very harmful, and 62.3% listed weekly cigarette use as very harmful.

Marijuana is perceived as the safest of these three drugs among students at the state university; with 8.2% of students at the state university perceive that the risk of consuming marijuana at least once is very harmful, compared to 16% for those attended a liberal arts college. Of state university students, 11.9% reported that weekly alcohol consumption was very harmful, and 70.2% for weekly cigarette consumption. Students at the liberal arts college perceive weekly alcohol consumption as the safest as 8.9% reported weekly consumption was very harmful, followed by 16% marijuana, and 53.7% for cigarettes.

Knowledge of state level marijuana laws and criminal sanctions also vary among college students (Table 4). Neither group of students is knowledgeable of the monetary fines for marijuana possession (personal use quantities), as 73.6% of liberal arts college students and 73.3% of state university students indicate that they do not know the penalties in their state. However, only 22.3% of liberal arts college students and 8.1% state university students are unaware if they state they are currently residing has legalized marijuana for medicinal and/or recreational purposes.

State university students are 1.94 times more likely to have consumed marijuana within the past 30 days than those enrolled at the liberal arts college. Additionally, college students in general are 20.76 more likely to have smoked marijuana within the past 30 days if their friends are current marijuana smokers; while students who live off campus are 2.57 times more likely to have smoked marijuana within the past 30 days than those who live on campus.


Deciding where to attend college is a major decision in one's life. In addition to academics, lifelong friends and social networks are formed that can provide many positive benefits. Alternatively, some negative outcomes can develop based on which university one matriculates, as transitions to college is associated with an increase in marijuana use and usage varies by type of institution. Many factors appear to contribute to this increase in marijuana consumption such as relief from stress and tension (Bergamaschi, Queiroz, Chagas, de Oliveira, De Martinis, Kapczinski, Quevedo, Roesler, Schroder, Nardi, Martin-Santos, Hallak, Zuardi, & Crippa, 2011; Crippa, Derenusson, Ferrari, Wichert-Ana, Duran, Martin-Santos, Simoes, Bhattacharyya, Fusar-Poli, Atakan, Santos Filho, Freitas-Ferrari, McGuire, Zuardi, Busatto, & Hallak, 2011), peer acceptance, physical pain, or sex seeking (Beck, Caldeira, Vincent, O'Grady, Wish, & Arria, 2009); as well as a decrease in adult supervision, greater amounts of personal freedom, increased availability and opportunity, as well as a sense of perceived anonymity within the college community (Stewart & Moreno, 2013). This paper has demonstrated that differences in the rate of marijuana consumption, access to marijuana, and perception of harm of consuming marijuana exist among college students whom enrolled in either a liberal arts college a large state university.

Strong and lasting social networks are formed during ones college years. Affiliation is one of the strongest predictors of happiness by undergraduate college students (Tkach & Lyubomirsky, 2006), and social interactions and openness to experiences has been shown to have positive effects on psychological well-being (McCrae & Jr., 1991). However, some of these newly developed social networks may greatly contribute to the chance of one partaking in risky behaviors. Participating in marijuana use with other students may increase their level of social relations (Allen & Holder, 2014) and exposure to new experiences. Students with risky networks are six times more likely to consume marijuana on a weekly basis (Mason, Zaharakis, & Benotsch, 2014), and students whose friends are current marijuana users are more than 20 times more likely to have smoked marijuana within the past 30 days.

The vast size of the student population at large state institutions also appears to influence the perception of harm of marijuana consumption. Those attending the state university perceive that weekly marijuana consumption is less harmful than both weekly alcohol and tobacco consumption. This may be due to the increased exposure to those consuming marijuana, as more than 80% of state university students have witnessed marijuana use at a recent party compared to only 50% at the liberal arts college. Students at both schools indicate an increase in marijuana prevalence from high school, with 27% of liberal arts college students and 41% at the state institution report marijuana use among their peers is significantly more. This increased exposure to marijuana use may normalize this behavior. As marijuana consumption is more accepted there may be an increased tendency to reject the notion that many like-minded peers would purposefully engage in harmful behavior.

The normalization of marijuana consumption may be reinforced by the ease of access. Just over 40% of liberal arts college students and 47% of state university students can get access to marijuana within 30 minutes. This short amount of time to access marijuana reduces the barriers to use and may even encourage consumption, as marijuana is increasingly thought as any other good available on and around college campuses. Students enrolled at a state institution are also more likely to have purchased marijuana compared to students at a liberal arts college, 41.6% versus 27.9%. This shows greater intent to participate in an illegal activity and may be due to the commonplace nature of marijuana smoking.

Additionally, residing off campus greatly influences one's chances of consuming marijuana within the past 30 days. Those who live off campus are almost 3-fold more likely to be a current marijuana smoker. This is likely due to the lack of supervision and the decreased likelihood that persons who reside in places where the social bonds are tighter, such as a fraternity or sorority house, will be reported to authorities for illegal behavior. University policies that require students to reside on campus past their freshman year may aid in decreasing marijuana consumption.


This study has several limitations that should be noted. First, only two Midwestern institutions participated in the study. The participation of more, as well as more diverse, institutions would increase the generalizability of the results. Future studies should also include university's that reside within states with differing laws concerning marijuana. Second, the majority of participants (73%) in this study were female. This does not accurately reflect the current level of female college enrollment which is 56.2% (The National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). A sample which better reflects the current enrollment levels of males and females, may provide results that are more precise. Future research is planned which will utilize a larger number of participating institutions.

These limitations notwithstanding, this paper highlights differing consumption patterns among college students at dissimilar institutions, and has important implications for practice. Policies that require students to reside on campus beyond their freshman year will be more effective in reducing marijuana consumption at large state institutions than at small liberal arts colleges. In addition, large state institutions should develop new and creative ways to educate students on the potential health risks of consuming marijuana, while policies that inform students of the addictive nature of marijuana would likely have a greater impact at small liberal arts colleges.


University of Missouri--Columbia


University of Missouri--Columbia


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Table 1. Descriptive Statistics

                            Liberal Arts      State University

                        Mean     SD     n     Mean     SD     n

Age                    22.94    6.31   148   20.44    1.80   160

Gender                  0.65    0.48   145    0.81    0.39   159

Race                    0.88    0.33   142    0.88    0.33   160

Grade Level             2.91    1.09   147    2.66    1.11   161

GPA                     3.34    0.46   144    3.45    0.42   155

Residence               0.67    0.47   145    0.75    0.43   159
(1=lives off campus)

                            All Students

                        Mean     SD     n

Age                    21.64    4.73   308

Gender                  0.73    0.44   304

Race                    0.88    0.33   302

Grade Level             2.78    1.10   308

GPA                     3.40    0.44   299

Residence               0.71    0.45   304
(1=lives off campus)

Table 2. Marijuana Use Among Midwest College Students

                                 Liberal Arts    n

Ever used marijuana                 56.50%      147

Used marijuana within               31.30%      147
past 30 days

Marijuana has been at a             49.60%      133
party past 6 months

Marijuana use is significantly      27.00%      122
more prevalent than when a
senior in High School

Have you purchased marijuana        27.90%      147
while in college

Can get access to marijuana         40.60%      96
within 30 minutes

Marijuana is addictive              44.50%      128

                                   State       n      All       n
                                 University         Students

Ever used marijuana                65.20%     161    61.00%    308

Used marijuana within              46.90%     160    39.40%    307
past 30 days

Marijuana has been at a            80.80%     146    65.90%    279
party past 6 months

Marijuana use is significantly     41.00%     156    34.90%    278
more prevalent than when a
senior in High School

Have you purchased marijuana       41.60%     161    35.10%    308
while in college

Can get access to marijuana        47.50%     118    44.40%    214
within 30 minutes

Marijuana is addictive             53.80%     145    49.50%    273

Table 3. Perception that Consumption Weekly is Very Harmful

             Liberal Arts    n      State       n      All       n
               College            University         Students

Alcohol          8.9%       146     11.9%      159     8.5%     305
Cigarettes      53.7%       147     70.2%      113    62.3%     308
Marijuana       16.0%       144      8.2%      159    13.9%     303

Table 4. Knowledge of Marijuana Penalties

                              Liberal Arts    n

Don't know if marijuana          22.30%      148
is legal in state

Don't know state criminal        49.30%      148
classification for
marijuana possession

Don't know monetary penalty      73.60%      148
for marijuana possession

                                State       n    All Students    n

Don't know if marijuana         8.10%      161      14.90%      309
is legal in state

Don't know state criminal       54.00%     161      51.80%      309
classification for
marijuana possession

Don't know monetary penalty     73.30%     161      73.50%      309
for marijuana possession
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Author:Ruggeri, David; Teti, Michelle
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1U300
Date:Sep 22, 2018

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