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How Ubiquitous is Campus Drug Use in North America?

College campuses have a long-standing reputation as the homes of heavy drinking and drug usage among students. The question, though, is whether or not this reputation is actually deserved. This question is of particular relevance to international students who are thinking about attending a university in North America. Here are some of the facts that international students should be aware of about drug use on North American campuses.

Campus Drug Use in the United States

More than any other country, the United States is known for colleges with high rates of on-campus drug use. Though the rates of illicit drug use among college students are fairly high, they aren’t all that surprising when compared to the general population. A 2016 report found that, of approximately 9 million full-time college students in the United States, just over 700,000, or about 7.7%, used marijuana on an average day. In the general population of the United States, though, the estimated rate of marijuana usage is about 9.5%. In other words, though it is still quite high, the rate of cannabis use among college students is actually lower than in the American population at large.

At the same time, though, there are troubling statistics about the rates of addiction and abuse among college students. In fact, about 23% of the full-time college students are estimated to fit the medical definition of substance abuse. Given that alcohol use is more prevalent on campuses than drug use, though, it is reasonable to assume that alcohol is a much larger contributor to this situation than illicit drugs. This proclivity toward higher rates of addiction may be a function of the fact that college students are overwhelmingly in younger demographics, and therefore may not yet have developed the emotional resilience needed to cope with the stress of a college environment.

Campus Drug Use in Canada

In Canada, surprisingly high numbers of college students self-report having done so-called hard drugs. According to the Canadian Center for Addiction’s treatment guides, youth turn to drugs for many of the same reasons that adults do—to temporarily relieve stress, or to escape or distract from the emotional pain.

A survey conducted in 2017 found that 11% of Canadian college students reported using cocaine, while 15% used ecstasy and 16% reported taking some form of a hallucinogenic drug.

Given these statistics on hard drugs, it’s interesting to note that marijuana use among Canadian students isn’t unusually high. Overall, 63% of students report never having used marijuana, while fewer than 10% reported using it one or more times per month. It is worth noting that these rates varied substantially by the school, with 6% of students at Bishop’s University self-reporting daily cannabis use and the University of Winnipeg reporting 7% daily use. There was also variance between different programs. Across universities, students in philosophy programs had the highest self-reported rates of marijuana use, with 57% reporting using it to some extent. The lowest-ranked program was linguistics, with a 29% use rate.

Campus Drug Use in Mexico

Owing to the country’s looser data collection practices compared with its two neighbors to the north, definitive statistics on-campus drug use in Mexico isn’t readily available. However, circumstantial evidence suggests that drug use among Mexican college students is fairly common. A turf war that broke out between two Mexican drug cartels earlier this year appeared to center on the National Autonomous University of Mexico, located in Mexico City. At the time, it was estimated that the university generated about $11,000 per week worth of profit for the cartels, strongly indicating that drug use on the campus was a fairly common practice.

So, How Ubiquitous Is Campus Drug Use in North America?

Even without strong data from Mexico, there are some conclusions that can be drawn about the ubiquity of campus drug usage in North America as a whole. Generally speaking, students who use illicit drugs, not counting alcohol, appear to be minorities on most campuses, albeit not tiny minorities. Many students go through college without being exposed to drug use. However, on certain campuses and in certain programs, as indicated by the data from Canada, the rates of drug use are notably higher.

For international students preparing to come to North American universities, the vision of these campuses as dens of frequent drug use may be a deterrent. However, as with universities everywhere, there is a great deal of variance from campus to campus. If you are considering transferring to a Mexican, Canadian, or American college as an international student, don’t let the reputation these campuses have gained deter you. It is entirely possible to go through your college experience without being exposed to drugs, as long as you stick to your studies and avoid the social circles in which drug use is a frequent activity.

For more hot-topic news articles about colleges or about cultural or political issues surrounding education, check out some of our other posts!

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