Dr. Amelia Arria, director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development and assciate professor in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health

November 21, 2016

As the recent election added four more states to the total (nine plus the District of Columbia) of those legalizing recreational marijuana, and still more states approve medical marijuana use, research by Dr. Amelia Arria in the School of Public Health suggests potentially troubling effects down the road on student performance and academic outcomes as well as overall health.

Dr. Arria is concerned that the link between cannabis use and educational outcomes--a link that she and other researchers have observed--is being left out of the national conversation. “The research should be used to guide the decision-making of policymakers,” Dr. Arria says.

Dr. Arria, director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development and associate professor in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health, was asked to discuss her findings at a symposium sponsored by the Vermont Department of Health in October. There, she said that marijuana’s potential impact on developing brains is significant, and these findings are not being discussed as much as they probably need to be. 

The legalization measure in Vermont did not pass in November’s election.

Many people, including a majority of students, believe that marijuana is safe, as indicated by recent national statistics, Dr. Arria says. “It is not a benign drug, especially when marijuana use is started earlier in life, in terms of its possible risk for addiction and how it might impact brain development.”

People use drugs--including marijuana--because it produces a biologically mediated reward, Dr. Arria says. “That process tends to interfere with the rewarding pursuits of things like academics. It’s hard to compete: going to a history class or doing a term paper is a little bit less exciting than a rush of dopamine. Academics are rewarding in the long term; drug rewards last only minutes or hours… and continued use can wreak havoc on an individual’s relationships, occupational potential, their health and overall well-being.”

Dr. Arria’s research finds that both heavy drinkers and marijuana users in college report skipping class much more regularly than non-users. “That is across the board: we found that over and over again, in several different types of colleges. Skipping class, as your grandmother could have told you, is linked to decreases in GPA. If a student disengages from academic pursuits, they won’t be benefitting from all that college has to offer.”

Another concern that Dr. Arria points to is the lack of a measurement for marijuana levels in drivers at roadside stops--despite the fact that research shows that smoking marijuana, especially in combination with alcohol, is detrimental to driving performance. Marijuana users typically also use other substances, such as alcohol, she adds. “There’s a myth that there are significant numbers of marijuana-only users out there, but that is not supported by the data.”

Dr. Arria explains that her research focus on educational outcomes is useful from a public health perspective. High-risk behaviors, including substance abuse, are a health issue, and are related to other health issues like sleep, cognition, and brain development--all of which affect educational outcomes.

Also from the public health perspective: a more educated public is a healthier public, she says. Improving the educational level of young people will most likely help them to get better jobs, become and stay healthier, be able to successfully navigate a complex health care service environment, and access preventative resources earlier.

The link between marijuana use and academic outcomes is “one of the most compelling arguments that educators have to take against substance use: it interferes with the primary mission of an educational institution, which is to educate students.”

Related Links

The Center on Youth Adult Health and Development research briefs

The Academic Consequences of Marijuana Use during College

Related People
Amelia Arria