When illegal drugs become study aids

With a 3.4 grade point average in his fourth year as a pre-med student at the University of California, Los Angeles, Eric, 21, is at the top of his academic game.

He has interned at two reputable hospitals, including Cedars-Sinai. He currently holds two part-time jobs, is involved in clinical research and school organizations, and tries to pile on 16 units every quarter.

Academic accomplishment was an early feat for Eric. After all, he was valedictorian for his graduating high school class, with a weighted GPA well over 4.0. He attributes his accomplishments and the promising future ahead of him to hard work and discipline. That, and a little something extra.

“Basically, I’m scared of failure, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well,” he said.

But with the large number of activities that have filled his calendar since high school, he has continued to use cocaine, opium, mushrooms, ecstasy, and oxy-contin.

To help him study and relax during the highly stressful times of college, he also regularly smokes marijuana, a seemingly popular trend among his peers. He speaks of smoking marijuana as if it were as common as a 10-minute cigarette break.

“If you are studying 24 hours straight, in between, you just smoke,” Eric said. “It’s my own mechanism for relaxing and coping with stress. I’ll smoke a bowl before I go to bed to help me sleep.”

Although Eric uses an alias in order to not be identified because of his upcoming graduation and medical school applications, he claims to have always been open about his drug use, especially among his peers at UCLA.

“I was never a closet smoker,” he said. “I was just open about it. I was a smoker.”

But he smiles and laughs at his life, which involves striking a balance between academic excellence and the next big high.

“I mean, I’m pre-med! How many pre-meds do you know (who) go out and get high all the time?” he said.

There may be more than he thinks.

Although polls show that marijuana use seems to be declining among teenagers, it is increasing among college students, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study measuring marijuana use at college campuses across the country.

The use of drugs has risen about 22 percent among college students from 1993 to 1999, according to the study.

A poll, conducted by CNN, concurred with Harvard’s findings. According to the report, marijuana use has dropped among teenagers ages 12 to 17, but has increased among those ages 18 to 25.

What may be attributed to this rise?

“I work full-time, go to school full-time, and still have to address my personal life when I get home,” said Corina, 21, a CSUN student who wished to not be identified as well. “I welcome a little smoke to help me relax and stop stressing. Sometimes I just have so much in my head that I can’t concentrate. (Marijuana) helps me relax so that I can begin studying.”

According to the National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse, this trend is common. In fact, one of their studies found that marijuana use is higher among students who claim to have stressful lives. Those with tougher class loads are more likely to use drugs habitually. It also found that wealthier students with greater financial means were also more likely to become users.

“It just helps me write more insightful papers for my classes,” said Eduardo, 19, a student at Pierce Community College.

Students like these are among a growing number of students who are experimenting with marijuana at college campuses nationwide, and claim to use the drug for “positive” purposes, such as to help them relax or even study. A similar study by the Harvard School of Public Health also found that marijuana use is much higher among colleges that are rated as being “very competitive.”

As for the accusation that drug use leads to criminal behavior and a deviant lifestyle, Eric just shrugs it off. He does not take the emphatic statements and negative statistics about drug use to heart, he said.

Studies from the National Institute on Drug Abuse repeatedly state that marijuana use is closely linked to lower grades, increased absences, tardiness, car accidents, and a higher turnover in employment. Their studies claim “someone who smokes marijuana once daily may be functioning at a reduced intellectual level all the time.”

But Eric claims it is all about discipline.

“You regulate it (and) control it,” he said while taking a long puff from his cigarette. “Don’t let it take over you. You regulate it depending (upon) how you have to take your day, and what you have to do that day. That’s the only way you can be a functional smoker.”

The idea is difficult to comprehend, especially when trying to balance the images of the common pothead and the productive, goal driven student.

But the images balance quite nicely for Corina.

“Pot has always helped me study,” Corina said. “If I smoke just a bit, it helps me focus on what’s in front of me, instead of thinking about my personal problems.”

Stereotypes often present marijuana users as the non-intellectual breed, but some organizations, such as the World Anti-Doping Agency, are making the same arguments that Corina, Eduardo, and Eric are making.

These groups argue that the effects of marijuana can enhance the performance of an individual. In 2002, WADA was lobbying to establish regular testing for marijuana in all sports because of its “performance enhancing” effects.

The findings of the Canadian Medical Association Journal are also surprising. While researchers found that a person’s IQ drops with heavy use of marijuana, they also found there was actually an increase in IQ with regulated use.

Researchers found a drop of about 4.1 points in IQ among heavy users, or those who smoked five or more marijuana joints a week. Light users, those who smoked less than five joints a week, seemed to experience an increase in their IQs by about 5.8 points.

But the practice of regulation with a drug seems to be an illusion to even Eric, who admits an occasional break in his hard discipline.

“It was a ritual that after a midterm or a final, or something, we would go hit the bong,” Eric said. “We’d go and get four feet of smoke in our lungs.”

This seems harmless to regular users, such as Eric, but several experts disagree.

According to the NIDA, marijuana use can increase the heart rate, and with it, the chance for a heart attack. Likewise, a CNN report found that early use of drugs can lead to a 30 percent increase in the chance that the individual may develop schizophrenia later in life.

The sense of relaxation that several students feel and are seeking might bring them down to a very low sensation of anxiety and fear, as well.

The euphoria students feel can bring about, after the high, a sense of fear, sleepiness, depression, and an impairment of the ability to form memories and recall specific events, according to a Yale University research study.

This is superfluous to Eric.

“I never thought it was wrong,” he said. “I always had control of myself. It was always my decision. Nobody forced me to do anything. I started because I wanted to start, and if I want to quit, it’s up to me, too.”

In fact, Eric does admit he is starting to use marijuana less than he used to, although he does not see himself as quitting anytime soon.

“I do feel better about myself,” he said. “Just the fact that I’m not smoking makes me feel better about myself. I’m a student; I’m working; I’m trying to pay my bills. But I still want to have a social life.”

Perhaps he will quit when he is older, he said.

“I really don’t think it’s a problem, because I’m not messing up my life with it,” Corina said. “They say it’s wrong for you, but then you hear it’s not all that bad after all. Right now, I’m doing something productive with my life. I’ll quit when I have more responsibilities.”

She does not plan
on quitting anytime soon.

“I’m no criminal; I’m just a student,” Eduardo said. “All I want to do right now is go study for my classes and smoke a joint afterward to reward myself. Now that’s an incentive.”