Last year, I led a team investigation about marijuana use on a college campus that was originally intended to be published in my college newspaper. However, being a soon-to-graduate senior (and a little bit stubborn), when my editor requested several changes, I didn’t have the time to adjust the article accordingly.
It’s been a busy year for me post-graduation, but I finally have been able to revisit and publish our findings. My hope is that this article will cast an informative light over a topic that while still taboo, is clearly changing over time.
Over the last several months, the newspaper conducted a campus-wide survey of hundreds of college students in order to find out information about the average student’s marijuana use. This survey was not conducted by the college, but by independent students on behalf the newspaper. Participants were guaranteed confidentiality for their participation. There is a margin of error of +/-3%.
Overall, 71.25% of college students surveyed said that they have smoked marijuana. Broken down, with the exception of juniors, the number increases slightly by year. 69% of participants who identified themselves as freshmen have smoked. This is followed by 70% of sophomores, 76% of juniors and 70% of seniors. Also, 83% of graduate students and 67% of fifth-years said that they have smoked, although these sample sizes were much smaller.
Broken down by gender, the number of smokers breaks down to 53% female and 47% male. Of course, these numbers are within the margin of error, so the split is statistically 50/50. However, when taking into account the total number of participants, 67% of the women surveyed have smoked, while 76% of men have.
The First Time
Participants were asked at what age they first smoked marijuana. They were given three categories: “younger than 14,” “high school aged (14-17)” and “college aged (18-24).” Nearly two-thirds of all respondents first smoked while they were in high school, with 63%. 29% didn’t try it until college, while on the other side, 10% first smoked before they were fourteen years old.
Any participant who selected “college aged” was asked a further question: during which year of college did they first try marijuana. More than half of them– 53%– first smoked during their freshman year. The numbers decreased accordingly with time: 20% first tried marijuana during their sophomore year, 11% during their junior year, and 2% first tried it during senior year.
Respondents were given five options to describe the frequency of their marijuana use: Very frequent (every day), frequent (around once a week), occasional (around once a month), infrequent (a few times a year) and the option of “only tried it once.” The latter category can be slightly expanded to “tried it a couple of times,” as several respondents noted.
The most popular selection was “infrequent,” with 33% falling under that category. A somewhat distant second place was “occasional” with 21%, followed closely by “frequent” and “only tried it once,” both at 18%. “Very frequent” was the least popular selection, with only 8%. Around 1% did not specify the frequency of their use.
Broken down by the age which respondents first smoked, the results vary greatly.
Of those who first smoked under the age of 14, 38% would call their marijuana use “occasional,” followed by “frequent” at 29%. Just 21% of the under 14s listed “infrequent” while 14% went for “very frequent.” Interestingly, nobody who was under fourteen when they first smoked selected the “only tried it once” option.
For those who first smoked in high school, the highest given frequency was “infrequent” with 31%, followed closely by “occasional” at 29% and then “frequent” at 20%. 14% of high school first timers only tried it once, while 12% said they smoke “very frequently.”
People who smoked for the first time in college followed a different pattern than the other categories. The largest category was “infrequent” with 45%, and in second place was “only tried it once” with 35%. The higher frequency categories are far behind, with just 10% selecting frequent and 8% saying occasional. 0% of the first-in-college respondents selected very frequent.
“Stoners and Potheads”
A question was added at the end of the survey asking participants who have smoked marijuana if they consider themselves to be a “pothead” or “stoner.” While over 71% of students have admitted to smoking marijuana, only 7% of them checked the “Yes” box under that question. Interestingly, of the students who said that they smoked every single day, only a little more than half of them (54%) said they would call themselves potheads or stoners.
In fact, one participant, a female freshman who first smoked in high school, went as far to write “errrrrday” next to her circled answer of “very frequent/every day,” but check the “No” box for the pothead/stoner question.
The number drops drastically as the frequency goes down. Of the “frequent” smokers, defined as smoking around “once a week,” just 18% checked the pothead/stoner box. And not a single “occasional”, “infrequent” or “only tried it once” would give themselves either of those titles.
This data suggests that while a large majority of students do smoke marijuana, there is still a great stigma to it, and very few want to be identified with marijuana culture. A suggestion for a more in-depth future study would be to ask participants to elaborate as to why they do or do not wish to give themselves such titles. One last note on this question: one respondent, a male freshman who first smoked in high school, checked the “Yes” box but noted “I’m a STONER Not a Pothead,” for whatever that is worth.
Just Not For Me
Finally, any participant who said that they had not smoked marijuana were directed to a section in which they were asked why they had not. They were given three options: “it is illegal,” “health reasons” and a blank section in which they were asked to elaborate. Of the three main categories, 23% said they have not smoked because it is illegal, 33% have not smoked for health reasons, and 44% selected other.
Within the “other” category, there were a vast array of reasons given. The most frequent reason was simply that each student had never had the opportunity or been in a situation in which marijuana was available, but are open to possibly trying it. One respondent, a male senior, said that “smoking just grosses me out” but they “wouldn’t be opposed to trying other forms” of the drug.
On the flip side of that, several respondents were adamantly anti-marijuana. Some of these responses included “it’s lame,” “I’m cooler than that,” “drugs are stupid,” and “it just hurts you.” Other reasons given included cultural and religious prohibitions, and several students listed a form of fear or punishment as their reason. “My father” and “my mom would kill me” were given as responses, and multiple students noted a fear of getting marijuana laced with other, harder drugs. Some other interesting responses were “I prefer alcohol” and “don’t care for it; it smells wonky.”
The biggest takeaway from this project is that the percentage of people who have smoked marijuana in this survey is significantly higher than previous surveys. A recent USATODAY survey of high schoolers placed users at around a third.
Other surveys have topped out at around 50 percent. It seems that the overall attitude towards marijuana is changing — and changing quickly. A look at the culture today shows that a shift is taking place. Popular celebrities talk about their marijuana use. And it’s not just Snoop Dogg—it’s Gwyneth Paltrow. Deregulation and even legalization legislation are picking up steam in many states. The stigma is disappearing. Over 71% of students questioned in this survey have smoked pot. That’s more than a majority.
Our hope is that this article will contribute to a very important conversation that is going on in this country. Is weed the new normal? Or is our society going up in smoke?
James O’Connor and Zach Raymond contributed to this report.