Marijuana use trends among college students in states with and without legalization of recreational use: initial and longer-term changes from 2008 to 2018

Addiction. 2020 Jun;115(6):1115-1124. doi: 10.1111/add.14939. Epub 2020 Jan 13.


Background and aims: Young adult college students in the United States are likely to be affected by marijuana liberalization trends. However, changes in students' marijuana use following recreational marijuana legalization (RML) have not been examined in more than one RML state at a time, or beyond 1-2 years post-legalization.

Design: Cross-sectional National College Health Assessment survey administered twice yearly from 2008 to 2018.

Setting: A total of 587 4-year colleges and universities in 48 US states.

Participants: Undergraduates aged 18-26 years attending college in US states that did (n = 234 669 in seven states) or did not (n = 599 605 in 41 states) enact RML between 2008 and 2018.

Measurements: Self-reported marijuana use (past 30 days) and individual and contextual covariates, institution-provided institutional and community covariates and publicly available dates when states enacted RML.

Findings: Adjusting for covariates, state differences and state-specific linear time trends (accounting for pre-RML trends), prevalence of 30-day marijuana use increased more among students exposed to RML [odds ratio (OR) = 1.23, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.19-1.28, P < 0.001] than among non-RML state students throughout the same time-period; the results were similar for frequent use (≥ 20 days) (OR = 1.18, 95% CI = 1.10-1.27, P < 0.001). Interaction models supported stronger RML effects among students who were female, residing off-campus and aged 21 years and older; sexual orientation did not moderate RML effects. In the earliest states to enact RML (2012) there were increases in use prevalence in the second through the sixth year post-RML compared to pre-RML. In the second legalization group (2015) there were increases in the first and second year post-RML, and greater increases in the third year. In the later states (2016-17), increases were observed in both years after RML.

Conclusions: In US states that enacted recreational marijuana legislation from 2012 to 2017 there was evidence for a general trend towards greater increases in marijuana use by college students and differential impact by gender, legal using age and campus residence.

Keywords: Adolescence; cannabis; college students; early adulthood; recreational marijuana legalization; substance use.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Legislation, Drug / statistics & numerical data*
  • Male
  • Marijuana Use / epidemiology*
  • Marijuana Use / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Prevalence
  • Self Report
  • Students / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Universities
  • Young Adult