A Colorado State University faculty member is leading a new research effort to decrease misuse of cannabis among college students.
Nathaniel Riggs, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and his team will conduct new prevention research made possible by a $14,600 pilot grant funded by CSU’s Prevention Research Center and matched by $13,000 from Audrey Shillington, a co-investigator and head of the School of Social Work.
Social norms approach
Substance-use social norms, or the perception of the prevalence and acceptability of use, are strong predictors of whether college students are likely to engage in substance use. For example, previous research shows that college students who overestimate the prevalence and acceptability of alcohol use are more likely to drink.
“In developing alcohol misuse preventive interventions, one of the most successful approaches has been to correct misperceptions of prevalence and provide research-supported information regarding the consequences of misuse,” Riggs said.
Since there are currently few if any clinically effective cannabis misuse prevention programs for college students, Riggs said, his team’s strategy is to borrow concepts from successful alcohol-focused strategies to create a program that focuses on correcting perceptions of the prevalence of cannabis use and its consequences.
Riggs said his team is recruiting CSU students to participate in an online survey, in an effort to investigate how youth perceive social norms surrounding cannabis use and how to shift misperceptions that encourage misuse.
“What we are specifically trying to do is alter perceptions of normative cannabis use and reinforce that there are consequences to cannabis misuse, including that heavy use can negatively affect the brain well into the college years,” he said.
Riggs emphasized the necessity of accurate prevalence data that is as specific to the participant as possible. Participants in the study will complete questionnaires to determine their use and perceptions. Riggs and his team can then tailor messages about cannabis misuse to participants based on the data they provide through surveys.
CSU is special in that it is located in one of the first states to legalize recreational cannabis use, which could alter the perception of prevalence and acceptable use among students. In terms of determining “heavy use,” researchers identify daily users as heavy users, but it has yet to be determined if Colorado sits at a higher baseline for heavy use than other states.
Potential detrimental effects
Literature on the negative health impacts of heavy cannabis use is still growing and emerging. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment compiled and reviewed the available research-based evidence regarding the negative health impacts of heavy cannabis use.
Riggs’ focus on young adults has some unique implications. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is critical for higher-order cognition, problem-solving and “executive function,” is typically not finished developing until 25 years of age. Some evidence points to decreased executive cognitive functioning, such as impulse control and some forms of memory, in heavy cannabis users.
The overarching goal of the research is to prevent use in college populations and reduce the negative social and health impacts on individuals and the community regarding interpersonal relationships, health, work life and academics. Many college students experience a scary combination when mixing alcohol and cannabis as well. The risk to the community includes impaired driving with slower reaction times, as well as the potential negative effects on new life from mothers who use while pregnant.
Building a powerhouse team
CSU launched the Prevention Research Center in 2014 “to address big community problems and to promote healthy individuals, families and communities,” explained Doug Coatsworth, a professor in the HDFS department and director of the Prevention Research Center. “To achieve this, we need to employ a multidisciplinary approach. We will bring together faculty and researchers from different disciplines at CSU, as well as from partner institutions across the state.”
Following this ideal, Riggs and his colleagues constructed an affinity group focusing on cannabis research. He combined efforts with Coatsworth; Shillington; Bradley Conner, associate professor in psychology; Prevention Research Center research scientist Melissa George; Lucy Troup, assistant professor in psychology; and Mark Prince, assistant professor in psychology.
Riggs and his team are hopeful that this is only the first of many grants funding this prevention research. “It’s a timely opportunity to explore research in the area of cannabis use and misuse prevention,” Riggs said, referring to Colorado’s unique stance as the first state in the nation, along with Washington state, to legalize recreational use of cannabis.
The research is being conducted in partnership with the CSU Health Network, which assisted in student recruitment and provided investigators with student normative cannabis use data.
The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of the College of Health and Human Sciences at CSU.
IRB protocol number: 16-6794H