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Parents, college students, college officials and other policy makers: take heed. Recent findings from the College Life Study (CLS) may be the first to indicate that students who smoke marijuana during college may be risking their longer-term health, particularly if they increase their marijuana use during the college years or continue a heavy use pattern.

Amelia Arria, PhD, Principal Investigator of the CLS and co-author of the study, stressed the importance of finding out more. “These findings need to be examined in other college (and non-college) samples of young people,” she said. “Rather than assuming that marijuana use during college is simply a ‘rite of passage,’ we need to consider possible impacts on long-term physical and mental health and on health care utilization,” she explained.

Based on how often they used marijuana over six years, the researchers first divided the college students in this sample into two categories: users and non- or rarely-using students. Most (71.5%) did not use marijuana (or used only rarely). The 29.5% who did use were then sub-divided into five groups based on the onset, frequency, and progression of their marijuana use.

Analysis indicated that all marijuana using students—except those who rarely used—were at risk for several adverse health outcomes, including injury, illness,and emotional problems bad enough to interfere with day-to-day tasks; poorer overall health (self-reported); more symptoms of psychiatric problems; lower quality of life (health-related); and, three years after college, increased service use for physical and mental health problems. Non-users fared significantly better than most of the using groups. Students who were chronic users or whose use increased beginning in year three of college had the worst health outcomes.

A major strength of the study is that it takes into account health at baseline and a number of other variables including alcohol and tobacco use over time. No data were available to quantify the costs of these problems, but the findings should be of interest to policymakers and others who are concerned about the rising costs of health care services.

Stressing again that the possible link between marijuana use and adverse health outcomes needs more study, Arria went on to say that even modest differences in health outcomes should be a wake-up call for the students themselves as well as their parents. “For this (growing) subset of college-bound adolescents who use marijuana, college may be an opportune time and place to intervene before problems escalate,” she said. “Colleges should consider using assessment tools to spot trouble and do something about it—through college health centers and academic assistance programs,” she added.

The writer is Principal Investigator of the College Life Study and Director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, Department of Family Science. She is also Scientific Director of the Parents Translational Research Center at the Treatment Research Institute.

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