NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

College Drinking and Drug Use

"Stricter college alcohol policies, such as raising the price of alcohol or banning alcohol on campus, decrease the number of students who use marijuana."

By cracking down on underage and binge drinking, in an attempt to prevent student deaths of the nature that were highly publicized in recent years, colleges also will trim the illegal use of marijuana. Stricter college alcohol policies, such as raising the price of alcohol or banning alcohol on campus, decrease the number of students who use marijuana, according to an NBER Working Paper by Jenny Williams, Rosalie Pacula, Frank Chaloupka, and Henry Wechsler. Alcohol and marijuana are what economists call "economic complements," at least for college students. There had been concern that the two were "substitutes," and that anti-alcohol policies by colleges inadvertently contributed to a 22 percent increase in marijuana use among college students between 1993 and 1999.

In Alcohol and Marijuana Use Among College Students: Economic Complements or Substitutes (NBER Working Paper No. 8401), the authors consider evidence from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, using data on students from 1993, 1997, and 1999. This data covers 140 schools in 40 states. The authors also have data on the prices of marijuana, and on the expected social and legal penalties faced by those caught using it.

The surveys consistently show that substance use and abuse among college students is higher than estimates from the general population. For example, in 1999 a Monitoring the Future Survey found that 83.6 percent of 19- to 28- year-old students drank alcohol, 35.2 percent used marijuana, and 36.9 percent used any illicit drug. That compares with prevalence rates for all young adults in the same age bracket of 84.1 percent, 27.6 percent, and 30.3 percent respectively for these substances. The higher use rates among college students are "particularly disturbing," the authors note, because they frequently are accompanied by serious health consequences, acts of violence and/or crime, poor performance in school, and other negative outcomes.

In order to reduce substance use and abuse among college students, Congress passed the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986. It set aside money for prevention programs in higher education. Also, there was a wave of private and public initiatives at the state and local level to curb underage and binge drinking. Policies that work, according to the NBER paper, include raising the price of alcohol, often through a higher beer tax, and restricting access to alcohol through campus bans or state laws restricting happy hours. The bonus is a drop in marijuana use as well. However, bans of alcohol on campus shrink the use of both alcohol and marijuana only by female students of all ages, but not by males. Further, these various changes in alcohol policies have the same impact on individuals under the age of 21 as on those of legal drinking age. The more likely explanation for the rise in the use of marijuana by college students, the authors suspect, is that its price has dropped significantly in the past decade.

-- David R. Francis


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