Want to Be a Successful Student? Ditch the Pot.

Successful students

Education is highly valued in America. Every year, 3.7 million teens graduate from high school. Sixty-three percent of these youth go on to college right away. At any point in time, there are 15 million Americans enrolled in undergraduate programs and millions more in graduate school. Unfortunately, these peak years for advanced education are also peak years for the consumption of marijuana. What these young people may be completely unaware of is that consuming this drug hampers their chances of success.

The subject of marijuana’s adverse effects on education has been extensively studied and the results of these studies have been made available to the public. However, many people either do not know about them, choose to disbelieve them or assume they will be able to succeed despite any effects that marijuana may have on their chances.

How Many Secondary and Postsecondary Students Are Consuming Marijuana?

The annual Monitoring the Future survey provides insight into the drug use of both high school and college students.

In 2022, 38% of high school seniors had used marijuana at least once, and 31% had used it in the last year. Fourteen percent were daily users of marijuana (defined as 20 or more times per month). One in five was a current user, a number that has not varied much in the last couple of decades.

Among college-aged Americans, the rate of marijuana use was higher. In 2020, 42% used marijuana in the past year. Twenty-seven percent used it in the last month, and nearly 10% were daily users. At the same time, disapproval of occasional use of marijuana declined, a sign that can precede an increase in use. Also according to this survey, if you ask a 19-to-22-year-old if all or most of their friends use marijuana, 24% will say yes.

The Vital Question: How Is Marijuana Affecting Them?

With this many high school and college students using this drug, is it affecting their ability to learn and succeed in both school and life? If you just look around a little bit, there is plenty of evidence as to the drug’s effects.

Student having problems, at the school administration office
  • Reduced achievement: Heavy marijuana users reported significantly lower educational achievement. Cannabis users were also more likely to drop out of school than those who do not use the drug. They are more likely to be unemployed. They also reported that their cannabis use had negatively affected their memories, physical and mental health and their ability to think clearly, along with other measures of a satisfactory life.
  • Impaired cognitive function and attentional dysfunction: Marijuana has changed in the last couple of decades to become vastly more potent. It stands to reason that it is going to have a much stronger effect on students. A review of many studies on the effects of cannabis determined that the use of this drug impairs a student’s ability to manage their attention—even relatively light marijuana use (once a week) does so. Students may have less ability to keep their attention continuously on one task or manage divided attention tasks. Users also were less accurate, made more errors and had slower reaction times. Higher doses more greatly affected recall and recognitions.
  • Executive function impairment: Both short-term and long-term cannabis use impair executive function. Damaged are verbal fluency, visual memory and certain types of short- and long-interval memory. Young adult cannabis users had poorer memories and generated fewer words than those who had abstained from use for at least a week.
  • Verbal Memory: Verbal memory was impaired in those who chronically use the drug. They had lower scores when learning word lists, especially if there was a delay in testing them.
  • Low educational attainment: Starting cannabis use early can result in low educational attainment. Youths who initiated cannabis use up to and including 16 years of age may therefore need support from both addiction and education specialists to improve their long-term outcomes.
  • Lower grades: A study completed at Yale University monitored more than a thousand college students who started out with similar SAT scores. Researchers then collected the students’ grade point averages (GPA) at the end of a semester. Those using minimal alcohol or marijuana: average GPA of 3.1. Those who just drank alcohol: average GPA of 3.03. Those who consumed both alcohol and marijuana: average GPA of 2.66.

Manifestations of Addiction to Marijuana

What are the typical signs that cannabis consumption has gotten out of hand—that it has turned into addiction?

A study of 201 Colorado marijuana-using college students painted a picture of cannabis addiction. The average age of these students was 20 and they had typically started using marijuana at 17. On average, they were second-year students. When asked for their frequency of use, they reported an average of 23 days per month.

More than half of these students reported these signs:

  • They developed a tolerance for the drug and so needed to consume more to create the effect they wanted (71%).
  • They spent a great deal of time involved in obtaining cannabis or using or recovering from cannabis use (70%).
  • They were using larger quantities or over a longer period than intended (62%).
  • They used cannabis repeatedly in situations that were physically hazardous (such as driving) (62%).
  • They experienced cravings or strong urges to use the drug (57%).
  • They wanted to and try to cut down their use but they were not successful (56%).

These particular students were typically exposed to high potencies of cannabis products by virtue of their presence in Colorado. The average herbal marijuana product in Colorado has a THC potency of 19.6% and the average potency of a concentrated product is nearly 69%. This study notes that higher potency products make it more likely that problems will develop from its use. Those using concentrates, not surprisingly, report more symptoms of addiction than those using herbal products.

It is also not surprising that those using cannabis frequently manifest higher levels of mental distress, such as anxiety and depression.

The Path to Academic and Life Success

College success, son hugs dad

Once you know this data, it is fairly obvious that the path to educational success, high grades, academic degrees and an enjoyable life do not include cannabis. When a student is already on a hazardous path of cannabis use—especially frequent use or consumption of potent concentrates—it’s important to try to get through to that person that they are harming their own chances of success.

Once a person is addicted to marijuana, however, it is likely to be very difficult for them to make the decision to change their habits. The cravings are likely to overwhelm their willpower. Plus the drug use itself reduces their awareness which includes their awareness of the harm that is being created and the necessity for change. An effective drug rehabilitation program is their best chance to get control of their behavior, education, future and life.


  • BestColleges. “College Enrollment Statistics in the U.S.” BestColleges, 2023. BestColleges.
  • Monitoring the Future. “Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use.” MTF, 2022. MTF.
  • Monitoring the Future.“College Students & Adults Ages 19–60.” MTF, 2020. MTF
  • National Library of Medicine. “Cannabis and educational achievement.” NLM, 2003. NLM.
  • Pennsylvania State University. “Attributes of long-term heavy cannabis users: a case-control study.” PSU, 2003. PSU.
  • University of Wollongong. “Cannabis and cognition: short- and long-term effects.” UOW, 2012. UOW.
  • International Journal of Epidemiology. “Early cannabis initiation and educational attainment: is the association causal?” IJE, 2017. IJE.
  • National Library of Medicine. “The Problem with the Current High Potency THC Marijuana from the Perspective of an Addiction Psychiatrist.” NLM, 2018. NLM.
  • National Library of Medicine. “Characterizing symptoms of cannabis use disorder in a sample of college students.” NLM, 2020. NLM.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.