10 March 2017

Dagga and alcohol combo recipe for varsity dropout

A new study found that university students who consistently consumed moderate-to-high quantities of both dagga and alcohol had lower marks than their sober peers.


Recent studies have concluded that brainy students on marijuana tend to make irrational decisions. This is particularly concerning against the background of the current challenges being faced by South African universities, as well as the imminent legalisation of dagga. 

Adding dagga to the mix

Regarding the legalisation of marijuana, Dr Shaquir Salduker, board member of the Psychiatry Management Group (PsychMG) told Health24: “If we legalise it as a medication, young people will start to think it is okay to use cannabis, and this is extremely dangerous to children, adolescents and young adults. Their brains are still developing and the harmful effects of dagga on their development have been proven.”

Too much alcohol may not do long-term damage to a university student's academic performance, but adding dagga to the mix can send marks tumbling, new research suggests.

The two-year investigation found that, all things being equal, students who consistently consumed moderate-to-high quantities of both substances had lower averages than their sober peers.

Booze alone don't cause academic blues

But big drinkers whose dagga use was relatively low didn't seem to experience any long-lasting drag on their marks, despite an initial fall during their first semester, the researchers found.

"This was surprising to us, as one would think that alcohol by itself would have a profound effect on their marks, but this didn't seem to be the case," said study author Shashwath Meda.

Meda is a senior clinical research associate at the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center and Hartford Hospital/Institute of Living, in Connecticut.

The findings were published online in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study team noted that roughly 80% of university students drink, with marijuana trailing just behind as the second most popular campus drug of choice. And nearly six in 10 who drink alcohol say they have done so in combination with using dagga.

The current investigation reviewed data on more than 1 000 students who were between the ages of 18 and 23 when they entered university.

All the students had had comparable results before being accepted to university.

Each semester, each student was asked to indicate whether they drank alcohol or smoked dagga and, if so, how much.

Substance abuse reflects in lower marks

Roughly 40% of the students said they consumed very little of either alcohol or dagga, or none at all. Another 40% said they consumed moderate-to-high amounts of alcohol, but very little dagga or none. About 20% said they were heavy users of both, with high dagga use defined as smoking marijuana 20 or more times per month.

Almost no students said they smoked a lot of dagga but barely drank, and most students stuck to their substance use habits throughout the two-year study period.

When compared with abstainers or low users of both substances, moderate-to-heavy users of both alcohol and dagga had lower marks throughout. 

By contrast, an initial performance drop among those who drank heavily but smoked infrequently bounced back up by the second semester, and stayed up.

"Interestingly," Meda added, "a follow-up analysis also showed that students who were able to moderate or lower their drug use over the two-year period also saw an improvement in their performance."

That said, Meda stressed that his team did not prove that the alcohol/dagga combination directly undermined academic performance.

"Absolutely, this study in no way implies a causation, only an association of the two," he said.

Meda said he suspects that peer pressure is likely a big driver of excessive substance use among students, with many entering college with a distorted sense of what's "normal" when it comes to drinking and smoking behaviour.

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