Why Marijuana Is Not the Cure for the COVID Pandemic

Parents can teach college students healthy ways to cope with stressful events.

Posted Jun 27, 2020

I’ve been meaning to write about marijuana for a long time. Since my blog began in 2015, the most common question emailed to me by parents is how to convince their college student to stop marijuana use. The kinds of concerns parents express are:

  1. My son was smoking marijuana every day in the fall and got all C's. He failed classes in the spring. I don’t know whether I should pay for school this fall if he is smoking all the time.
  2. My daughter was hospitalized in February with a psychotic episode after vaping increasing amounts of marijuana every day. I didn’t even know she had been doing this. Now that she’s out of the hospital, she is taking her antipsychotic medication but is still vaping. What should I do?

As a psychiatrist working in a college clinic, I have seen many examples of the above scenarios. Marijuana is far more damaging emotionally and physically now than when I was in college due to its high THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content of 20%, five times higher than the 4% in the early 90s. Marijuana extract used for vaping has even more concentrated THC at 40-80%.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to talk about marijuana now more than ever. Students are extremely stressed due to social isolation, financial challenges, fear about family members’ health, and uncertainty about what will happen with fall classes. Marijuana use, in general, has increased during the COVID pandemic, and I’ve seen some of my patients use this method to cope 

Even before COVID, marijuana use was at a 35-year high among college students, with 43% of 19- to 22-year-olds smoking marijuana in the last year. One of 17 college students report near-daily use. Marijuana vaping in the previous 30 days has doubled among college students between 2017 and 2018, from 5.2% to 10.9%.

Smoking or vaping marijuana may be the worst strategy for coping with the stress of COVID. Medical experts believe that those who smoke or vape this product are damaging their lungs, increasing susceptibility to the virus and its life-threatening effects. Pre-COVID, vaping marijuana was already associated with deaths and lung damage in teenagers.

There is such concern about both the physical and psychological damage of marijuana in adolescents that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends against any use of marijuana under the age of 22. The adolescent brain is continuing to develop until the mid-20s. There is evidence of harm from marijuana use the younger a person starts, including addiction and poor school performance. There is no FDA-approved use for marijuana for adolescent mental health disorders but there is potential harm, especially with more frequent use. While more research needs to be done, some studies have linked marijuana to the following: 

  1. Memory and reaction time delays immediately after use that can negatively impact academic performance and driving safety. 
  2. Skipped classes, a lower GPA, and delayed college graduation the more frequent the use.
  3. Increased risk of depression and suicidal behaviors in young adults.
  4. Increased risk of psychosis in people who are susceptible to psychotic episodes. 
  5. Cannabis (marijuana) use disorder with cravings, the need for increasing amounts of marijuana to feel good, and withdrawal symptoms on stopping use that include irritability, anxiety, depression, and difficulty sleeping.

Students should also consider the potential loss of internship and job opportunities from a failed drug screen, as one can test positive up to four weeks after use.

What Can Parents Do to Prevent Marijuana Use?

Avoiding marijuana use is a message parents can give their children starting in middle school. You can share some of the facts provided above, or go to websites of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) or Be the Influence (BTI) to learn more about talking with teenagers about marijuana. BTI has an online forum for parents to offer each other tips. Teenagers should be aware that earlier and more frequent marijuana use is associated with future risk of academic problems, addiction, depression, psychosis, and suicidal thinking.

What Can Parents Do to Stop Marijuana Use? 

  1. Talk with your college student in a loving and non-judgmental way about your observations concerning how marijuana is negatively affecting them. Give them scientific information and links to articles that validate your concerns.
  2. Ask to meet with your child and their mental health provider (if they have one) to share your observations and see if all of you can come to a consensus about changing behaviors. See if the campus has individual or group therapy for substance use disorders. 
  3. Set appropriate boundaries. Consider paying for rent or other expenses directly if you are helping your student out, rather than sending them money that may be used for marijuana.
  4. Contact an addiction specialist if your student's marijuana use leads to addiction, depression, suicidal behaviors, or psychosis. SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) has a treatment locator that you can use to find services in your area, or you could also ask your primary care provider. The addiction specialist can guide your child to the appropriate level of care in the outpatient, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, or inpatient treatment setting. If your child will not see the addiction specialist, you can go yourself and learn how to approach the situation. 

Parents feel overwhelmed when a child has problems with marijuana. If you are that parent, you are not alone. Talk with other parents and medical specialists about ways to help your college student. Model for your child ways to relax like talking with friends, exercising, and meditating. If your student is struggling despite healthy coping mechanisms, encourage them to seek counseling now or call their campus counseling services in the fall; many are offering teletherapy visits. COVID is likely to bring new twists and turns to the academic year; you can help your college student find a healthy path to resiliency.

©2020 Marcia Morris, all rights reserved.
Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.