Marijuana. Weed. Grass. Bud. Mary-Jane. Cannabis. Whatever you call it, you’ve probably seen it, smelled it, or smoked it at some point. Marijuana is, after all, far and away the most commonly used illicit drug in the world, with about 4 percent of all adults consuming it regularly and 0.6 percent on a daily basis. Humans have used the drug as far back as the third millennium B.C. for recreational, spiritual, and medicinal purposes, and in recent years a very public debate on weed’s legality has caused many to question how harmful it really is.
And just as marijuana has pervaded our national culture, so too is its skunky smoke as much a part of the air in our college campuses as the smell of Easy Mac. At my school, weed is so common that the university barely gives you a slap on the wrist for being caught smoking—a violation results in a brief alcohol education class and a mark on your record, while in high school it meant immediate expulsion. But even though it’s all around us, weed is still illegal—and still dangerous in many ways.
But how bad is it, really? HC talks to college girls, both users and non-users and Deb Lewis, Cornell’s alcohol and drug expert, to get the low-down on getting high.
What are you smoking?
At first glance, that green stuff you pack into rolling papers and light up looks as innocuous as tea leaves, but it’s actually a very mild hallucinogen. It originates from the Cannabis plant, indigenous to Central and South Asia but now grown all over the world. Marijuana comes in countless forms and contains over 400 chemicals, but what users are really after is THC, its mind-altering ingredient. THC content averages about 4 percent of the chemical content in each Marijuana cigarette, but depending on the form and potency of your stash, it can be as high as 24 percent, which makes for some serious tripping.
Why do you smoke it?
By now, we’re all past the age of trying weed just to impress the hot soccer player at our first high school party. Girls may have tried it because of peer pressure back in high school, but in college they smoke it for its mind-altering effects—often as much as or even more than the boys. In fact, a 2004 for study showed that girls are trying weed before boys, and generally abusing substances at a higher level.
Marijuana can induce a sense of well-being and relaxation, and often a dream-like state where your mind wanders into fantasies. Unlike tobacco, marijuana is not a pure stimulant, and unlike alcohol it’s not a pure depressant—instead, it’s a mild hallucinogen (yes, seriously) with depressant properties. So if you smoke weed and suddenly have the incredible philosophical insight that the world is one big video game, that’s the THC talking. The effects usually peak in 10-30 minutes and last about two or three hours.
“It relaxes me,” Michelle*, a student at Columbia University, explains. “When I’m having a tough day in school or I’ve just done a lot of work, smoking at the end of the day helps me calm down and improve my mood. It’s like having a few drinks at cocktail hour for our generation.”
How are girls using it in college?
It’s a motif perpetuated by dozens of stoner movies and hundreds of YouTube videos: college boys sitting around a dorm room, smoking from a bong in their boxers and bragging about their sexual conquests. But what about the girls smoking in their dorm rooms? Weed isn’t just a boy’s club, no matter how much the popular media likes to tell us so. Girls are smoking weed in college in large numbers, and often more than they did in high school.
Nicole*, a junior at Cornell University, observes, “in high school I mostly just experimented with weed, but I’ve found everyone smokes it way more in college. I don’t smoke every day, but it went from an occasional thing in high school to about once a week in college. I don’t just smoke with boys either—my [girl] friends and I smoke together in someone’s room most of the time.”
Some college women, however, feel that their social lives in college actually contain less bong hits than in high school. Rebecca*, a junior at Cornell, pinpoints the sorority system as the cause of her lighter drug use. Joining a sorority skews your everyday social interaction much more toward the X-chromosome, and Rebecca feels the increased girl time removes pressure from boys to smoke weed.
She explains: “Before I joined a sorority I used to smoke pretty regularly, but now my sorority sisters never smoke. When we hang out at the sorority house together there isn’t really an occasion to smoke, and they never want to when we go out, so now I feel like I smoke much less than I did in high school, when guys were in my closest group of friends and we would all smoke together a few times a week.”
Alyssa*, a junior at the University of Michigan, agrees: “I feel like in the Greek system, for girls especially, alcohol is way dominant over weed in the social scene. I never have a night where I smoke weed instead of drink when I go out.”
But the college party scene can bring many more occasions to light up, too, and for the girls who enjoy smoking, the Greek system’s full social calendar can bring even more occasions than usual to smoke. Nicole says, “If you go to a frat party or even a house party in college, you’ll always be able to find someone with weed. In high school that was way harder, because you needed to seek it out yourself or else drive to someone’s house to smoke. ”
So for girls who smoke, and enjoy the effects of it, there will always be a way to find weed around them at college. But for those who choose to abstain, there’s no shame in that, and they can still enjoy a vibrant social scene without it. Alyssa sums it up: “It’s not socially unacceptable for girls to smoke, but I never feel pressure to.”
So what’s the downside?
Marijuana has to be illegal for some reason, right? The simple fact is that marijuana is usually smoked and has some harmful effects on the body, including an increased risk of chest colds, bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses, including an increased chance of lung cancer. Contrary to popular belief, smoking weed is NOT necessarily safer than smoking cigarettes—recent studies have shown that smoking marijuana can be just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, to your health than smoking cigarettes. Don’t freak out yet though—these studies are not conclusive. Deb Lewis, drug and alcohol expert at Cornell’s Gannett Health Services, points out that a lot of marijuana users also smoke, so it’s difficult to separate the effects of cigarettes from those of weed.
Some studies have also shown that marijuana could potentially damage mental capacity, including students’ ability to learn and retain information. The debate rages on, but evidence has proven that marijuana can cause long-term impairment of short-term memory and mental capacity in daily users, and long-term use can even lead to problems with reproduction and mental illness.
And, of course, you can do some pretty stupid things while you’re high, sometimes stupid enough to really hurt yourself or someone else. According to Cornell’s Gannett Health Services, car accidents and dumb decisions are the most common short-term effects of marijuana. Marijuana is, after all, illegal for a reason, and its mind-altering qualities can cause you to take risks you wouldn’t normally—and that can lead you into trouble. So don’t listen to any of those stoner boys who insist that it’s “all natural” and “from the earth”—no matter how you roll it, it’s still an illicit substance!
What many people may not realize, too, is that marijuana is addictive. The American Psychiatric Association recently classified marijuana dependency as a legitimate disorder. Lewis warns that the effects of marijuana use are a lot more subtle than alcohol use, and therefore it’s harder to tell if you’ve taken it too far: “When you drink too much, alcohol kind of smacks you on the forehead and says, ‘you idiot, you drank too much last night!’ whereas marijuana doesn’t really do that. For a lot of people, marijuana just kind of adds a little bit of sparkle…to watching TV, listening to music or going for a walk. For some people it can be really hard to start doing any of those things without marijuana…for college students, marijuana becomes how they fill their free time, and since college students have a fair amount of free time, it becomes particularly risky.”
Marijuana’s real risk, then, is in its ability to take over your whole life—if you’re dependent on weed, you feel like nothing fun is quite as fun without it. If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or a friend, you may have rolled one joint too many, and you should seek out your school’s drug and alcohol services, or psychological or medical help at home, for help:
- It takes more weed than before to produce the same effect
- Withdrawal (irritability, restlessness, headaches, and insomnia) when you don’t smoke for a while
- Smoking more or for a longer period of time than you intended to
- You try to cut down but you find you’re not able to
- You feel like you’re spending most of your time finding, smoking, or coming down from weed
- You’re giving up on or reducing schoolwork, activities, or hanging out with friends
- You keep using even though you know it causes problems
Anonymous college students at Cornell University, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan