Study of the Week: Hitting the Books, or Hitting the Bong?

Today’s Study of the Week, by Olivier Marie and Ulf Zölitz, considers the impact of access to legal marijuana on college performance. (Via Vox’s podcast The Weeds.) The researchers took advantage of an unusual legal circumstance to examine a natural experiment involving college students and  marijuana. For years now, the Netherlands has been working to avoid some of the negative consequences of its famous legal marijuana industry. While most in the country still support decriminalization, many have felt frustrated by the influx of (undoubtedly annoying) tourists who show up to Dutch cities simply looking to get high. This has led to some policies designed to ameliorate the negative impacts of marijuana tourism without going backwards towards criminalization.

In the city of Maastricht, one such policy involved only selling marijuana to people who had citizenship identification from the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium, and not from other nationalities. These specific countries seem to have been chosen as a matter of geography – look at Maastricht on a map and you’ll see it’s part of a small Dutch “peninsula” wedged between Germany and Belgium. Importantly for our purposes here, Maastricht features a large university, and like a lot of European schools it attracts students from all over the continent. That means that when the selective-enforcement policy went into effect in 2011, one group of students still had access to marijuana, while another lost it, at least legally. That provided an opportunity to study how decriminalization impacts academic outcomes.

This research thus does not amount to a true randomized experiment, although I suppose that’s one that you could really do, given the long-established relative safety of marijuana use. (“Dude, I’ll slip you $100 not to end up in the control group! No placebo!”) Instead, like a couple of our Studies of the Week in the past, this research utilizes a difference-in-difference design, comparing outcomes for the two different groups using panel data, with a lot of the standard quality checks and corrections to try and root out construct-irrelevant variance between the groups. Ultimately they looked at 4,323 students from the School of Business and Economics. Importantly for our purposes here, there were about equivalent dropout rates between the two treatment groups, which can potentially wreak havoc on this kind of analysis if they are not closely matched.

There’s a couple obvious issues here. First, not only are these groups not randomly selected, they are deliberately selected by nationality. This could potentially open up a lot of confounds and makes me nervous. Still, it’s hard to imagine that there is a distinct impact of smoking marijuana on brains of people from different European nationalities, and the authors are quite confident in the power of their models to wash out nonrandom group variance. Second, you might immediately object that of course even students who are not legally permitted to smoke marijuana will frequently do so, and that many who can won’t. How do we know there aren’t crossover effects? Well, this is actually potentially a feature of the research, not a bug. See, that condition would be true in any decriminalization scheme; there will inevitably be people who use under a period of illegality and who don’t when decriminalized. In other words, this research really is looking at the overall aggregate impact of policy, not the impact of marijuana smoking on individual students. Much like the reasoning behind intent-to-treat models, we want to capture noncompliance because noncompliance will be present in real-world scenarios.

So what did they find? Effects of legal access to marijuana are negative, although to my mind quite modest. Their summary:

the temporary restriction of legal cannabis access increased performance by on average .093 standard deviations and raised the probability of passing a course by 5.4 percent

That effect size – not even a tenth of an SD – is interesting, as when I heard this study discussed casually, it sounded as if the effect was fairly powerful. Still, it’s not nothing, and the course-passing probability makes a difference, particularly given that we’re potentially multiplying these effects across thousands of students. The authors make the case for its practical significance like so:

Our reduced form estimates are roughly the same size as the effect as having a professor whose quality is one standard deviation above the mean (Carrell and West, 2010) or of the effect of being taught by a non-tenure track faculty member (Figlio, Shapiro and Soter, 2014). It is about twice as large as having a same gender instructor (Hoffmann and Oreopoulos, 2009) and of similar size as having a roommate with a one standard deviation higher GPA (Sacerdote, 2001). The effect of the cannabis prohibition we find is a bit smaller than the effect of starting school one hour later and therefore being less sleep-deprived (Carell, Maghakian & West, 2011).

This context strikes me as mostly being proof that most interventions into higher ed are low-impact, but still, the discussed effects are real, and given that marijuana use is associated with minor cognitive impairment, it’s an important finding. Interestingly, the negative effects were most concentrated in women students, lower-performing students, and in quantitative classes, suggesting that the average negative impact of legalization would be unequally distributed. One important note: these findings were consistent even when correcting for time spent studying, suggesting that it wasn’t merely that students who had access to marijuana were less inclined to work but actually performed less well on their tasks on a minute-per-minute basis.

What do we want to do with this information? Does this count as evidence supporting continued marijuana criminalization? No, not to me. Part of what makes achieving a sensible drug policy difficult lies in this shifting of the burden of proof: things that are already illegal are often treated as worthy of decriminalization only if they can be proven to be literally harmless. But all number of behaviors that are perfectly legal involve harms. Alcohol and tobacco use are obvious examples, but there are others, including eating junk food – which is not just legal but actively subsidized by our government, thanks to a raft of bad laws and regulation that provide perverse incentives for food production. Part of freedom means the freedom to make bad choices. The question is when those choices are so bad that society feels compelled to prevent individuals from making them. Even if you aren’t as attached to civil liberties as I am, I think you can believe that marijuana use simply doesn’t qualify.

As for myself, I actually mostly stopped smoking when I got to grad school. In part that’s because I didn’t enjoy it anymore the way I once did. But it was also because I knew I simply couldn’t read and write effectively after I had smoked, and graduate study required me to be reading and writing upwards of 12 hours a day. That’s by no means universal; some people I know find it helps them concentrate. Likewise, I am useless as a writer after more than one beer, though of course there are many writers who famously wrote best when soused. Still, it seems to me entirely intuitive that habitual marijuana use would have minor-but-real negative impacts on academic outcomes. Marijuana, as safe as it is, and as ridiculous as its continued federal illegality in the United States is, does tend to cause minor cognitive impairments, and it would be foolish to assume there’s no negative educational impacts associated with it.

I’d still rather have college kids getting stoned than binge drinking constantly. And ultimately this is a question of pluses and minuses that individual people should be able to weigh for themselves, just as they do when they decide on a cheeseburger or a salad. That’s what freedom is all about, and one part of college is giving young people a chance to make these kinds of adult decisions for themselves.