Legal marijuana leaves colleges with questions

As smoking becomes more common, colleges look for an appropriate response

More states have decriminalized and—in some cases—legalized marijuana, leaving colleges uncertain about how to respond, the New York Times reports.

Legalization's impact in Colorado

Colorado opened its first recreational marijuana shops in January, but medical cannabis has been available since 2001. The University of Colorado says the relaxed laws are causing it to reconsider how it enforces its rules.

Christina Gonzales, dean of students, says the school has been writing fewer citations, choosing instead to educate students about the negative effects of the drug. Physician Donald Misch, associate vice chancellor for health and wellness at the university, says that while marijuana won't "turn you into an ax murderer," it is not "as benign as many people want you to believe."  

The school runs a support group for students cited for smoking marijuana in public or being under the legal age of consumption. (You must be 21 to consume recreational cannabis in Colorado). Last year, 718 students who were sent to the health center were found to have engaged in risky pot use.

Health centers can also help support mental health. Learn how in this study

Colleges explore a range of approaches

Stephen Bentley, a substance abuse counselor who runs the some of the sessions, says he is increasingly seeing students who have been smoking since age 14 and are now heavy users. He focuses on showing students how getting high interferes with achieving their goals. For instance, he points out how the drug can cause financial problems or reduce cognitive performance.

However, Jason Kilmer, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington, says campus substance abuse programs are usually adapted from an alcohol-focused curriculum and often miss the mark. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Boston College, and the University of Southern Indiana have launched cannabis-specific programs to better connect with at-risk students.

For colleges, the issue of increasing marijuana use is also a retention problem, says Bentley. A 2013 report from the University of Maryland found that even moderate marijuana use increased the risk of students dropping out. Another researcher at Dartmouth University notes that small issues, like getting a C-average instead of a B-average, can pile up and ultimately change the course of a student's life.

Researchers say the most effective intervention for student marijuana users is so-called "motivational interviewing." Under this approach, counselors ask groups of students to voice their own concerns about their habit—rather than telling them about the negative effects. Counselors also recommend watching for signs of self-medication or other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression.

Learn more about mental health and wellness services

Group counseling program can have risks, though. Two years ago, Oregon State University disbanded its program because members were enabling each other's habits. Now, it offers individual sessions.

So far, little research exists on the effectiveness of such programs at curbing marijuana use, but early studies are promising. Months after a short intervention, students on three campuses reported smoking less and having fewer pot-related problems in their lives (Moore/Turkewitz, New York Times, 10/29).

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