Right now, some 20.5 million young people in the US are attending college. Getting away from home offers valuable opportunities for learning and expanding horizons, but it comes with a serious risk: binge drinking. This behavior can cause alcohol poisoning, car crashes, drunk-driving arrests, sexual assaults, injuries, and even death. Concerned authorities are trying to curb this behavior with increased awareness, with limited success. But there’s a little-discussed possibility for reducing this harmful behavior: marijuana. It may sound counter-intuitive, but substituting marijuana for alcohol could reduce risky behavior, health problems, and addiction.
The College Binge Drinking Problem
The combination of campus culture, peer pressure, easy access to alcohol, reduced supervision, and underdeveloped impulse control creates a perfect storm of factors that contribute to high rates of binge drinking*. (According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 39 percent of adults aged 18 to 22 who are enrolled full-time in college were binge drinkers in 2013, compared with 33.4 percent of the same age group who are part-time or not enrolled in college.
The statistics are dire, to say the least. Every year, nearly 2,000 college students
between 18 and 24 die from “alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes,” according to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA). (This number is a rough estimate; see a thorough breakdown here.) Campus drinking also leads to 4,860,000 students drinking and driving, 599,000 unintentional injuries, 696,000 physical assaults, 97,000 sexual assaults, 400,000 unsafe sex incidents, and thousands of emergency room visits for alcohol poisoning, plus problems with academic performance, suicide attempts, health issues, and police involvement.
The NIAAA recommends increased awareness and individualized intervention, but critics point out that this strategy has barely affected the rate of binge drinking over time.
“Institutions of higher education are still really committed to the idea that if we just provide the right information or the right message, that will do the trick, despite 30 or 40 years of research that shows that’s not true,” Robert F. Saltz, a senior research scientist at the Prevention Research Center, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. He recommends increased enforcement of rules and laws, but universities are reticent to police student behavior.
*SAMHSA defines binge drinking as “five or more drinks on the same occasion (i.e., at the same time or within a couple of hours of each other) on at least 1 day in the past 30 days.”
Marijuana As a Safer Alternative and Exit Drug
Despite its widespread use, alcohol is an incredibly dangerous substance. A recent study found that, in terms of overdose risk, alcohol is more deadly than heroin, cocaine, or nicotine, but marijuana was by far the least risky substance—114 times less likely to cause overdose than alcohol.
The study’s authors note that “the results confirm that the risk of cannabis may have been overestimated in the past. In contrast, the risk of alcohol may have been commonly underestimated.”
Unlike alcohol, much less associated with other types of risky behaviors. As the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs explains, “Cannabis differs from alcohol … in one major respect. It does not seem to increase risk-taking behavior.”
On an individual level, surveys show that many people choose marijuana as a less harmful alternative to alcohol. One survey of medical cannabis patients in British Columbia found that 41 percent substituted cannabis for alcohol, and another survey of patients in Berkeley, CA showed that 65 percent chose cannabis over alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal drugs because it has less adverse side effects.
For people with alcohol abuse issues—and NIAAA estimates that 19 percent of college students have an alcohol use disorder—cannabis can act as an “exit drug” that helps ease the withdrawal symptoms. In one study, 90 percent of alcohol-dependent patients reported that using cannabis was effective at controlling alcohol cravings.
Getting Real about College Drinking
College drinking has become a public-health crisis, but the efforts to minimize it have been virtually unsuccessful despite the millions of dollars and countless intervention and prevention programs that have been deployed.
Perhaps it’s time to change the conversation? While college students view partying as essentially their basic right, completely obliterating the concept of getting buzzed, or worse, doesn’t seem feasible. It’s time to face the facts: marijuana is safer than alcohol, and with our young people’s lives and well-being at stake, it is an alternative that we all can – and should – live with.