4/20: Addressing the facts

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Dear editor,

If past years are an indicator, a small percentage of the student population will gather Wednesday afternoon to smoke marijuana in a public place on campus.

On its surface, the event is really not a big deal. Even 10 years ago, I might have left it there – people doing what they want, using a harmless drug that never killed anyone and is much safer than alcohol. It turns out I was wrong.

In considering complex questions like what role marijuana should occupy in our lives, society often approaches them in ways that serve us poorly.

One of these is the use of scare tactics in attempt to influence behavioral outcomes. These tend to insult intelligence, turn off conversation, and leave us none the wiser. So I won’t express my genuine concerns about marijuana use like this: “If you use marijuana, x will happen, where x = something terrifying”.

That wouldn’t be honest, and we can all look around campus and know that it’s simply not true.

But I can in good conscience report some important themes from an emerging body of scientific literature over the past ten years:

1) Regular use is associated with serious mental health outcomes including depression, anxiety and, much less frequently, psychosis.

A relatively common syndrome wherein users exhibit less drive to receive external rewards has been described.

2) Regular use is associated with lower levels of success in both high school and college. In college, this includes a higher likelihood of an interrupted or uncompleted degree.

3) Marijuana is addictive for some regular users, with rates of use disorder of about 30 percent of those who report any use in the past year.

The second unhelpful approach society often adopts is that of giving harmful things a pass – overlooking what’s right in front of us and failing to think critically.

The worrisome findings noted above dovetail seamlessly with the challenges my colleagues and I have witnessed for too many students who use marijuana regularly.

Regular marijuana use isn’t “noisy”. It doesn’t cause the same set of problems – interpersonal violence, property damage, obvious public impairment and overdose among others – that we associate with alcohol misuse (which has also received a longstanding pass on college campuses).

Its adverse outcomes are much more personal and private. The ‘so what’ for far too many students is the insidious development of a gap between personal potential and personal achievement, certainly in the short term and presumably over the course of a lifetime if the issue isn’t addressed.

So for me, the 4/20 gathering on campus Wednesday isn’t a celebration in any sense of the word.

Lighting up in the middle of the day – in the middle of a busy week – reminds me of the members of our community who are struggling right now with the impact of marijuana, alcohol and so many other substances– and the ways in which we so easily give a pass to things that can cause real, avoidable harm.


Jon Porter, MD

Director, University of Vermont Center for Health and Wellbeing