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The Highs and Lows of Collegiate Cannabis Prevention, Part I

Health, Safety, and Well-being
January 31, 2019

Ever shifting legislation regarding possession and sale of cannabis makes it difficult to engage in effective substance abuse prevention and health promotion efforts. Nine states(1) have passed legislation allowing the legal retail purchase, possession, and consumption of cannabis for persons 21 years of age or older. Thirty states have enacted varying medical cannabis legislation, and sixteen states have legislation regarding sales and use of CBD (Cannabidiol). Only four states do not have any legislation regarding public cannabis access. Further complicating matters, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug with no currently accepted medical use and  high potential for abuse.

The Coalition of Colorado Campus Alcohol and Drug Educators (CADE), a project managed by NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, provides training, technical assistance, and fiscal resources to help adapt current evidence-based programs in substance abuse prevention. Amendment 64 passed in Colorado in November 2012, allowing adults over the age of 21 to possess and purchase up to one ounce of cannabis through retail outlets throughout the state. As the first state to legalize, we wanted to share some lessons we learned along the way. Part one of this blog series will discuss the prevalence of cannabis use and associated risks for higher education, and part two will offer best practices for student affairs professionals.      

The field of cannabis prevention continues to evolve, adapting evidence-based and evidence-informed strategies from alcohol and tobacco efforts. The bulk of cannabis prevention efforts focus on cannabis containing THC, which students use to experience a “high.” There are 113 identified cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, including THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component in cannabis) and CBD (Cannabidiol, a nonpsychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis and hemp).  Per federal legislation anything containing less than 0.3% THC is considered industrial hemp. This distinction adds another layer of complexity when considering readily available products with CBD.

Data from the 2018 American College Health Association – National College Health Assessment indicates that 21% of students across the United States have reported consuming cannabis in the past 30 days (NCHA 2018). Past 30 day prevalence is slightly higher in the state of Colorado, at 33%. In the same Colorado data set, students reported that they thought 93% of their peers had consumed cannabis in the past 30 days2. Educational dissemination campaigns and social norming efforts are essential in correcting misperceptions around cannabis consumption. The University of Maryland’s College Life Study indicates that heavy cannabis users are more than twice as likely to experience discontinuous enrollment, even when controlling for other factors. Students engaging in heavy or chronic cannabis use are more likely to experience impacts on success and retention. There are a variety of ways student affairs teams can support students engaging in high risk cannabis consumption, which we will explore in the next edition of this blog.

Self-education is essential to cannabis prevention efforts on campus. Peer educators and prevention practitioners should be aware of the new intricacies of cannabis consumption, language, and access in order to provide prevention education and promote healthy decisions on campus. Unlike alcohol, there is no standard cannabis dose size, and different methodologies of consumptions have different impacts on the brain and body. Cannabis may be consumed in a variety of ways, including:

  • Smoking (joints, pipes, blunts)
    Bud from the marijuana plant is burned and the smoke is inhaled, typically with THC) levels between 1%- 20%. It takes seconds to minutes to feel the effects, and can last up to six hours.
  • Vaping
    THC extract from cannabis is heated and the vapor is inhaled, typically with THC levels 15%-30%. It takes seconds to minutes to feel the effects.
  • Dabbing
    THC extract from cannabis is extracted and converted to a concentrate, typically known as wax, shatter, budder, or BHO (butane hash oil). Concentrates are heated on a hot surface (often a metal nail), than inhaled through a dab rig. Concentrates typically contain THC levels at 70%-90%, and dabbing can be a more intense and longer lasting “high.”
  • Edibles
    THC extract from cannabis is added to food or drink to be digested. THC and CBD levels can vary in edibles, and it can take 90 minutes to four hours to feel the full effect. Since edibles are absorbed through the digestive tract instead of the respiratory system overconsumption is a concern.

In our next blog post we will explore the ways in which student affairs professionals can support cannabis prevention best practices on campus. In the meantime, please feel welcome to reach out to cade@naspa.org with questions.

  1. States who have legalized cannabis for retail sales include Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Massachusetts, Nevada, Maine, Vermont, Michigan and Washington, DC.

  2. CADE Statewide Data Set