A new study from the Netherlands has added to the debate about the effects of marijuana legalization laws. Numerous studies have shown that marijuana use impairs short-term learning ability. The drug’s long-term effects on cognition are still up for debate.
So are the effects of marijuana legalization. But the results of a study published in The Review of Economic Studies in March indicate that cutting off access to legal marijuana may help college students improve their grades.
Alicia Baker with the University of Florida’s GatorWell Health Promotion Services told DrugRehab.com that some college students have a notion that marijuana is “safer or less harmful” because it’s a plant and it doesn’t cause overdoses.
“The study doesn’t combat the myth of safety, as it talks about academic performance,” said Baker, who wasn’t involved in the study. “It does reinforce what I talk about regarding marijuana and academic impacts, as I talk to students about the impact of marijuana on memory and learning.”
Researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands analyzed the grades of international students who lost access to legal marijuana. For decades, coffee shops in the Netherlands had been allowed to sell small amounts of marijuana. In 2011, the city of Maastricht decided to combat marijuana tourism by banning cannabis sales to anyone who didn’t hold a Dutch, German or Belgian passport.
The temporary policy change gave economists at Maastricht University a chance to study students who lost legal access to the drug. Maastricht University enrolls more than 16,000 students, and about half of them come to the Netherlands from another country.
The economists found that the academic performance of students who lost access to legal marijuana improved substantially.
“This provides perhaps the first clear causal evidence of an important positive effect on short term productivity of restricting legal access to cannabis,” the authors wrote. “Our findings also imply that individuals do change their consumption behavior when the legal status of a drug changes.”
The course grades of college students who lost access to legal cannabis improved. Those students also became more likely to pass a class, but the dropout rate did not change significantly.
The study did have a range of limitations. It analyzed only the grades of students in the School of Business and Economics where students primarily use math and statistical skills. The academic performances of students using a different set of skills may have been different.
Additionally, Dutch cannabis shops sell cannabis with a high concentration of THC. The effects may be different in states where different types of cannabis are available. The authors also recognized that students may have been able to obtain marijuana illicitly. However, the results still add to the discussion about the benefits and risks of marijuana legalization, the authors wrote.
A deeper analysis of the study’s findings showed that the grades of female students were more likely than the grades of male students to improve. The grades of younger students and students who had poor grades while marijuana was legal also improved more significantly than those of other students after access was reduced.
The findings reinforce the arguments that marijuana prevention advocates have expressed for years.
“It’s important to talk to students about the connection between academics and substance use because many students don’t realize that the connection exists,” Baker said. “Students tend to silo recreational substance use off from other parts of their life, thinking that recreational use won’t affect anything too badly compared to having dependency or addiction to a substance.”
In recent years, several universities have adjusted their approach to preventing substance use. For example, some schools have reinforced low-risk drinking behavior instead of promoting complete abstinence. Based on the study’s results, schools may want to promote the benefits of quitting drugs instead of only warning about the risks of using the drugs.
Baker said the University of Florida already takes a holistic approach to preventing substance abuse. Gatorwell’s programming addresses the effects of drugs on academics, social life and legal standing, she said.
“Students tend to already know a lot of the long-term physical consequences of substance use —addiction, cancer, etc.,” Baker said. “We like to validate the knowledge they have but also include some of the more short-term impacts, like academics, that could affect them in the here and now.”
The authors of the study wrote that the relaxation of drug laws may be insignificant if there are no consequences but that the effects on academic performance revealed in the study show that consequences do exist.