Can we influence college students to use less marijuana, to use it more safely, or not to use it at all? Potentially, yes—but the legal, health, social, and political implications of marijuana use can make this a difficult topic for colleges to address. If we avoid the conversation, it’s a loss, because talking about marijuana means talking about being a savvy media consumer, a critical thinker, an effective self-advocate, and a thoughtful citizen.

At SH101, we aim (for example) to help our readers tell the difference between reliable health sources and bogus ones. Marijuana provides an ideal route into that conversation. When we talk about why the science on marijuana is unresolved, we’re discussing the difference between correlation and causation, the many factors that influence whether humans thrive or flounder, how tricky it is to identify and measure them, and how to think about conflicting evidence and claims. If those conversations are balanced—and if we acknowledge the motivations for using marijuana as well as its risks—we are rightly perceived as more credible, and are better positioned to influence students’ decision making and use. If our argument is one-sided and we cherry-pick our evidence, that opportunity is blown.

SH101’s first article on marijuana—Up in Smoke: Marijuana laws and why they matter (click to read) (February 2015)—outlined the arguments for and against legalization, and the impact of marijuana on human functioning, behavior, and health.

Our expert sources:

  • Kevin Sabet, co-founder of the advocacy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and former senior advisor to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama.
  • Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a nonprofit organization advocating for legalization.
  • The Society for Science-Based Medicine, an organization that evaluates the scientific basis of health and medical claims.
  • Relevant medical and scientific literature; for citations, see the article (Sources).

Who read Up in smoke and learned from it?

  • In February 2015, at least 22,500 student readers provided feedback via our surveys.
  • 65 percent of respondents said they had read Up in smoke.
  • Of those, four out of five (80 percent) said they had learned from it.
  • Thousands of readers cited Up in smoke as their top pick from the February 2015 issue.

Many students thanked SH101 for addressing marijuana:

  • “Oftentimes I feel like schools are afraid to post articles like this, because it is a controversial topic. We end up tiptoeing around the issue.”—Undergraduate, Towson University, Maryland
  • “I’m very impressed that there was an article about marijuana in this issue. It was an interesting and I think relevant read.”—Undergraduate, Humber College, Ontario
  • “It is a relevant topic in today’s society that should be openly talked about.” —Student, Oswego State University of New York
  • “I really appreciated the fact that the laws were explained in such a way that someone who may not be keeping up with the news all the time can also learn a few things!”—Student, The University of New Mexico

Students overwhelmingly appreciated SH101’s objective coverage of the legalization debate. Presenting the arguments for and against legalization, and inviting students to make up their own minds, helped establish SH101 as a credible source of information:

  • “I really enjoyed the breakdown of the pros and cons of marijuana legalization. I have never seen it put out there so clearly and well represented!”—Undergraduate, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York
  • “I was surprised to see an article about marijuana that wasn’t completely biased.”—Undergraduate, University of Wisconsin–Platteville
  • “Usually, [sources] do not put both sides of the story, and I was able to see that in here.” —Nontraditional student, Texas Woman’s University
  • “People who oppose the legalization of marijuana often discuss the negative outcomes, but the rebuttal describes how not only is marijuana impairing judgment but so are drugs that are legal. It was interesting to see the comparison.”—Undergraduate, US
  • “I was never raised around anyone (friends or family) that ever talked about marijuana, and it’s interesting to read about it without feeling like it’s ‘bad’.” —Nontraditional student, Park University, Missouri
  • “I was fascinated to hear the two opposing sides on the prominent issue, and I feel like I am now more aware of the potential harmful factors of marijuana use than I was before reading the article.”—Undergraduate, US

This piece was an opportunity to highlight that either position on marijuana legalization (or any other issue) has pros and cons:

  • Up in smoke listed students’ most frequently cited reasons for supporting or opposing legalization (from a previous SH101 survey). In addition, we pointed out that many students who supported legalization recognized its potential drawbacks (e.g., the risk of driving under the influence) and that many students who opposed legalization acknowledged downsides with that position too (e.g., reduced access to medical treatments).
  • “[I learned] that no matter what side of the marijuana debate one is on, there are good and bad arguments to be made.”—Undergraduate, Prairie View A&M University, Texas
  • “I think it’s rare to find a well informed and intellectual article on the legalization of marijuana … I’m not personally a smoker, so I hope all of my friends who do [use marijuana] will read the article and see how silly some of their arguments are, and vice versa.”—Student, University of Memphis, Tennessee
  • “So often, we form an opinion on something before educating ourselves on both sides.”—Nontraditional student, Portland State University, Oregon

Covering marijuana means acknowledging the limitations of the scientific research, and pointing out that many of the claims made by advocates (both for and against legalization) are overstated:

  • “It is interesting that the health benefits are exaggerated to make it seem like marijuana is all good and no bad, whereas there are elements of both.”—Nontraditional student, Northern Wyoming Community District College
  • “I know a lot of people who smoke and they tell you facts that you are unsure are true or not. I was able to see for myself what was true and what is just myth … and how I feel on the topic.”—Undergraduate, US
  • Up in Smoke really explained some factors in the marijuana legalization debate that I had not thought about, like how researchers still do not know if [heavy, early onset] users suffer from lower IQ in adulthood due to the effects of marijuana or due to the users being more likely to have skipped school.”—Student, Clemson University, South Carolina
  • “Often, people praise marijuana and show aggression towards anyone who opposes it, by saying that it has absolutely no negative health effects. This issues addresses all those points raised in a very constructive way.”—Undergraduate, University of Guelph-Humber, Ontario
  • “The most interesting thing was that marijuana actually keeps you from learning and it keeps you from thinking critically … I’ve always thought marijuana enhanced those things.”—Nontraditional student, Mineral Area College, Missouri

Students appreciate messaging that comes from their peers. Almost all SH101 content includes material from students (vetted for accuracy):

  • “[The most interesting thing in this issue was] the discussion videos of real students giving their opinions about marijuana use.”—Undergraduate, Northern Michigan University
  • “It helped me clear up some misconceptions. I like how one of the [student] videos addressed how smoking anything is not ideal, and that marijuana itself is not a gateway to some of the more dangerous illicit drugs. Great article!”—Undergraduate, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Some of our readers wanted more:

  • “One point that wasn’t covered, that people seem never to talk about, is why it was made illegal in the first place. If you look up the history it’s very interesting, and if you also research articles on countries and states that have already decriminalized or legalized the plant there have been major changes and positive outcomes.” —Undergraduate, US
  • “I honestly would have appreciated greater coverage on the topic of medical marijuana. There was so much ground to cover that wasn’t adequately addressed. Great article though!”—Undergraduate, Indiana University Southeast
  • “This article truly inspired me to read more into this topic and look more into the pros and cons of marijuana. Thank you.” —Nontraditional student, University of Texas, Tyler

Marijuana use on campus In recent years, marijuana use has risen on college campuses. Survey data suggests that 17 percent of college students used marijuana in the previous 30 days, compared to 65 percent who used alcohol, according to National College Health Assessment data (spring 2015). But in terms of daily or near-daily use, marijuana leads (with 5.9 percent of students reporting this level of use). By that measure, marijuana use on campuses is ahead of both cigarettes (5.2 percent) and alcohol (4.3 percent), according to the Monitoring the Future survey (2014).