In 2013, 24.2 percent of UNM students reported using marijuana once or more in the past 30 days. That number rose to 33.6 percent in spring of 2016, according to the annual COSAP student lifestyle survey.
John Steiner, program manager at UNM’s Campus Office of Substance Abuse Prevention, and UNMPD Police Chief Kevin McCabe said marijuana use on campus is a growing issue, given the trends in neighboring states and around the country.
“A lot, we think, might have to do with the fact of the availability in Colorado, but nothing that we feel is out of control or, you know, epidemic,” McCabe said. “I guess our instances of marijuana use would probably be consistent with the national trends for colleges and universities.”
Colorado legalized recreational cannabis use in 2014, Steiner said, adding that proximity to Colorado absolutely contributes to the increase in marijuana use at UNM.
UNM students weren’t surprised by the increase in cannabis use either.
Ryan Scarlett said increases in pot use don’t shock him, because UNM students frequently come from Colorado and California.
“I don’t mind it,” he said. “Joints are not a big deal for me. Now marijuana, it’s not as bad as it used to be growing up. I don’t smoke, but you smell it all the time. You kind of get used to it.”
Alyssa Meyer said she’s never seen anyone smoking pot on campus, but isn’t surprised that the number of marijuana users are increasing.
“I think pot’s a big part of our culture now,” she said. “It’s like when you’re in college, people tell you to go out and do new things, it’s like, ‘Go drink, go do that, go do this.’ And I think pot’s one of those things.”
Steiner said, in the prevention classes COSAP teaches, he noticed alcohol use formerly outweighed marijuana use, but now they tend to be used equally — sometimes marijuana use outpaces alcohol.
“I think changing social norms, the perception that it’s a benign substance that can cause no harm, which is not entirely true, and the legalization in several states — it’s creating an atmosphere of, ‘Hey this stuff’s okay.’ I think it’s the changing social climate,” he said.
Marijuana, which is still classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, is included in UNM’s alcohol and drug free campus policy, Steiner said.
McCabe said marijuana use on campus is not especially problematic.
“It’s part of daily life, not just here on campus, but everywhere,” he said. “You know, it’s a concern, it’s a concern for everybody’s health and welfare, and there are other students that really don’t appreciate it. So that’s when we get called and that’s when we respond.”
McCabe said UNMPD tries to work with the dean of students when they find people in possession of marijuana, but that collaboration is based on the officer’s discretion.
“A lot of times, we’ll turn that report up to them, and they can deal with it administratively. If it’s a chronic problem or a huge problem, we take a different approach,” he said.
When residence life catches students with marijuana on campus, they have to call in UNMPD, Steiner said. Students are typically not given citations and are instead sent to the dean of students and enrolled in a $50 alcohol and drug education workshop provided by COSAP.
“I think an ounce of education and prevention is worth 10 pounds of punishment,” he said.
Steiner said the COSAP class is not designed to demonize marijuana, but to educate students on the risks associated with its use.
“I approach it from an opportunity-cost kind of thing,” he said. “What are you doing with your time here if you’re getting stoned 24/7? You’re missing something. You could be working in your professor’s lab. You could be doing volunteer work. There are opportunity costs to hitting a bong at your friend’s apartment on a Tuesday night.”
Cannabis’ Schedule I status does limit knowledge around the hazards of using pot, Steiner said.
“It’s affected our knowledge of what marijuana’s capable of and what it’s not,” he said. “All these years, they could have really come to fully understand any hazards or problems with development of the brain or anything. We’re behind the times with stuff like that because of the Schedule I status.”
A bigger issue for COSAP is alcohol abuse, Steiner said.
“Usually alcohol creates a set of behavioral situations that can be very damaging to not only the person that’s drank too much, but the people around them,” he said. “You put your effort where the problems are. I’m not saying there aren’t any negatives where marijuana’s concerned, but in general, it doesn’t tend to act out in a way that creates as many problems.”
McCabe said UNMPD is more concerned with prescription drug abuse than marijuana use.
Steiner said he can’t predict whether marijuana use will continue to rise, but with more businesses investing in recreational pot, that may be the case.
“We love the students, and we want them to have a good experience at UNM, whatever they choose to do,” he said. “Try to moderate their drinking if they drink. Try not to become the pot leaf hat, the pot leaf shirt, everything’s pot, pot, pot, collection of bongs, high three times a day. Try not to be that guy.”
Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.