Molly Jean Box (M.J.): How are you able to gauge the extent of marijuana usage on campus?
Bradley Smith (B.S.): In addition to my own direct experience with students sharing aspects of their lives and world views, I receive referrals and observations from faculty, staff, the Office of Student Conduct, Residence Life and even parents. I also consider national data, our internal surveys, research from the field and reports from other universities. In aggregate, these all suggest marijuana is the most widely used drug after alcohol. It’s reasonable to think that about 35% of our students have used marijuana or one of its variants at least once in the last thirty days, and of those students, about 10% meet criteria for problematic misuse. That’s around 200 students.
M.J.: That seems like a lot for a legal plant.
B.S.: Let’s first clarify what we mean by “marijuana.” Many of us think of marijuana as the flowering part of the plant that produces the sticky, multicolored buds that are dried and smoked in a pipe or in a joint. But increasingly this is not what—or how—our students are smoking. Science and technology have provided more convenient ways to get THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana, into the brain. Battery powered vaporizers heat disposable [cartridges] that contain a liquid concentrate that can approach 97% pure THC. Think of hash oil on steroids. These carts are marketed with exotic names like “Diamond Dank” and “Fire Chem,” and when electrically ignited [they] produce little smoke or smell and deliver an astounding amount of THC into the brain. Juuls, vape pens, Dabaratus; these are all state-of-the-art delivery devices for carts or other variants of marijuana such as wax, dabs or shatter that are profoundly more powerful than the flower we generally think of as marijuana. So that’s the first of three questions I always ask our students: what are you smoking, how frequently are you smoking, and what is its potency? In a word, I am first curious about proportionality.
Much of our good science comes from a Lancet study of weed in Colorado in 2015, where only the budding portion of the plant, the “flower," was studied. This flower averaged 17% THC. That study showed that daily users increase their risk of psychosis [by] five times, and weekend use by three times. In fact, 24% of all psychosis cases in the study group were caused by weed alone. There is also companion science that suggests a link, for some, between heavy marijuana use and schizophrenia.
Today’s dispensary bud is advertised at 28-32% THC — twice the potency of the flower studied just five years ago. Grown in corporate, mega-greenhouses in Arizona and elsewhere, and marketed with exotic names like Las Vegas Kush, L.A. Afghan, Skunk XL, and White Widow, getting and keeping people stoned has become big business. It is a culture [unto] itself, and we just don’t have the data yet on what this kind of potency does to the developing brain. But my sense is the news will not be good.
M.J.: What are some reasons that you’ve seen students use marijuana?
B.S.: Our students are rightfully seeking to satisfy fundamental human needs. These include connection, significance, freedom, joy and safety. While for some a marijuana high can be enjoyable in and of itself, I think—especially for those students with problematic use—that their marijuana use is a response to their frustration of not being able to satisfy their fundamental needs. Marijuana can indeed help to help soothe and compensate for student’s unmet needs, but only temporarily. Then they have to relight, and a toxic cycle can emerge.
I think there is another layer to marijuana use beyond the oft-cited reasons of social awkwardness, stress relief and the seeking of connection. Our students feel deeply; they are quite bright and recognize the wider conditions around them. Many can feel personally powerless in a world of accelerating environmental decline and social injustice, divisive political rhetoric, extremism and the emergence of the surveillance economy. Combine concerns like these with normal developmental stressors, and there is a kind of rationality to checking out.
M.J.: Would you say that marijuana is working to soothe those unmet needs?
B.S.: Marijuana is perceived by the user to help them soothe, connect or compensate, and for some students it does do precisely that. For a while. Ain’t nothing like getting on a five-hose wax hookah with your peeps; that’s literally connecting. Marijuana does moderate emotional states for a time, but so [do] chamomile tea and exercise, but they don’t seem to have the same cachet.
M.J.: What do you think about students with medical marijuana cards?
B.S.: Again, let’s clarify. Anytime we use the word medical there are standards that are implied. Let’s look at three. First among these standards are dose compliance and dosing frequency. Many students smoke multiple times a day during multiple days of the week, often alternating between different THC strengths [and] intensity of use. This is preferential, not medical. Imagine if we did this with Diet Coke, or Häagen-Dazs. Another concern is what is known as a drug’s “route of administration” — inhalation. Inhalation is just a terrible way to transfer important medicines into the body and is no longer a first line medical standard. Thirdly, we should take a look at a frequently cited motive for chronically using weed: anxiety.
The influential psychotherapist Rollo May pointed out that some anxiety is just the cost of reaching into the unknown for our better selves. Getting along with new people, understanding ourselves and our place in the world, and committing to four years at an academically-rigorous [university] — these can all be anxiety-provoking. In this light we can think of some anxiousness as [a] traveling companion we need to learn to cope with, not something to conquer with an addictive neurotoxin because, well, it’s easy and legal. There is very little “medical” about a wake and baker, anticipating their 11 a.m. buzz to their 3 p.m. buzz and then into the night. These are highly organized and defensible efforts to either stop feeling something or start feeling something. That’s it in a nutshell. They’re trying to soothe, connect or compensate — all very human issues. I’m not saying anything is bad. I’m just saying it’s human, and it’s always about proportionality. So, for some, the medical marijuana narrative is a clever sleight-of-hand that allows them to deceive themselves.
M.J.: How have you seen marijuana usage affect young people?
B.S.: Chronic marijuana use can lead to significant deficits in three important intellectual and emotional areas: attention, memory and motivation. Here it is important to understand the wider context in which these deficits occur: in our academically ambitious university. Our brand is our students; our product is our students. LMU’s mission is to form men and women for others, students that are committed to excellence, to engage the call of social justice to the service of faith.
So, attention, memory and motivation are essential skillsets needed to propel our brand, and when these are eroded, so is the quality of all our lives and our shared work in the world. When marijuana use becomes the lens [through] which students mediate their experience with the wider world, I think some hard conversations must take place, but with compassion. Compassion is essential because ... for problematic misusers, marijuana has become a central relationship. We all know that breaking up is hard to do. While I don’t believe that marijuana use automatically leads to harder drugs, it is definitely a gateway drug to a mediocre college experience and a diminished brand value.
M.J.: Are there any benefits to marijuana usage?
B.S.: For many there is certainly a temporary alleviation of stress, a feeling of wellbeing and often a connection to others. Surgeons report similar feelings after a successful surgery. Pilots remark they have that feeling when flying; musicians and actors speak of their flow state during practice and performance. Using marijuana is not the only way to get positive feelings — it is just easier, with low investment producing a high initial return. Let’s be fair: marijuana use has an aspect of laziness to it while carrying the unsettling potential for physical and psychological dependence.
M.J.: Tell me a little about how you got into your position as director of the Center for Collegiate Recovery and Prevention?
B.S.: Most addiction begins and flourishes during adolescence and early adulthood. LMU recognizes that all of our lives are lived within a larger community mental health context, and by creating a safe, supportive and comfortable drop-in center in Malone 113, students can confidentially express their experiences and learn to respond more effectively to the challenges of their lives. I’ve been at LMU for 15 years, a certified addiction counselor since 2005, and a licensed mental health clinician since 2011. My area of specialty is young adults, and to LMU’s great credit, it was not difficult to find allies at all levels of our community and administration that desired to respond to substance misuse on our campus. Substance misuse begins with the seeking of connection. Connection is also how it begins to end.
M.J.: You touched on the difference between intermittent and chronic marijuana users. Can you describe that a little more in depth?
I consider intermittent use to be 15-20 times a year. So, once or twice a month, and I’m being generous. That also means only getting high one time in a day. Many chronic marijuana smokers are using multiple times during the day. This is the second year that LMU has offered a confidential Marijuana Moderation group in the Recovery Center, Malone 113. It is held every Tuesday from 4:20-5:30 p.m. I personally run that group, and I can tell you that when students find out that moderation means never smoking more than once a week, never on consecutive days, never more than one episode of smoking within a single day, and to only use bud, not concentrate, they don’t like it. When a student does not really want moderation, we embrace a different approach, a technique called Harm Reduction. Which is mostly what I do.
With marijuana, the first harm reduction technique is to delay first use. Don’t wake and bake! The next technique may seem counterintuitive to some, but it is brilliant: only smoke flower. No more carts, dabs, wax, or pens. From here we discuss attenuating or tapering their use. For example, if a student has been smoking a cart with 70% THC, or cooking a little wax in their dorm, could you just smoke a little bud instead? It’s a start.
There is some good news. We know that for most chronic marijuana users—by that I mean people smoking three or more times a week, often with multiple smoking episodes in a day—about 85% of these students will outgrow this misuse. They arrive into their 20s and recognize that weed isn’t helping advance their lives, relationships, sense of self and their professional opportunities. These students go, “Yeah, well, college was wild, but it’s time to adult a little bit.”
But that leaves the other 15% who are at genuine risk for long term physiological and psychological dependence. These are human beings, people [who] are worth love, who have dreams, who have creativities, who have people that love them. Virtually all of these students tell me that smoking isn’t even fun anymore.
M.J.: Is there a way to use responsibly?
B.S.: That’s a universal human dilemma that is not limited to marijuana, isn’t it? Sure, there’s a way to use anything responsibly. Perhaps most importantly is examining our motives. Is our reason for using merely a social or recreational one? Is it business or professional? Is it boredom? Or is it a way to check out? So, I think that we have to learn not to lie to ourselves. All of us have to eventually learn to balance between self-soothing and erosion of the things we want to do with our lives. Responsible use of anything is really the wisdom to know the difference between too much, too little, and why we are using in the first place.