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Looking at the correlation between sexual assault + cannabis use on post-secondary campuses

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With more states in the U.S. — as well as Canada as a whole — considering legalizing recreational cannabis soon, access in post-secondary settings is likely to increase. Couple that with the fact that sexual assault on college and university campuses has been a newsworthy topic in the last few years, and the question of whether switching from booze to weed could cut down on the number of sexual assaults is certainly a timely one.

That being said, the majority of research done around sexual assaults on college campuses has looked at alcohol usage alone, says Scott Schneider, J.D., attorney at law and head of the Higher Education Practice Group at Fisher & Phillips LLP in New Orleans.

This makes sense, given that research consistently finds that about half of all sexual assaults in college involve alcohol, according to a study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. While the effects vary from person to person, alcohol typically suppresses the parts of your brain that are responsible for self-control and your ability to assess when you’re in danger, says Tanny Raz, M.D., director of medical business development for Apollo Cannabis Clinics in Toronto.

So where does this leave us with weed? Should college students choose it over liquor? Well, it’s complicated. 

When schools are looking at sexual assault cases, they’re looking at whether or not the person has the requisite capacity to consent, says Schneider. “A lot of the training focuses on alcohol,” he says. “People instinctively know the difference between if someone has three beers or three shots of whiskey.” But different strains of cannabis have different effects — and that muddles things. 

“Cannabis use of strains rich in the compound THC can lead to feelings of altered sensations and perceptions including euphoria,” says Raz. In low doses, you might notice an increased heart rate and even forgetfulness, as well as issues with your short-term memory, problem-solving skills, and sense of time. At high doses, you could experience hallucinations, psychoses, and paranoia, depending on the strain and your tolerance level, adds Raz.

“Through my own experience, I would say that any substance makes it hard to give consent — whether it’s marijuana or any other drug,” says Jennifer*, a 21-year-old senior in college in Portland who was assaulted while under the influence of alcohol. Jennifer says that she still thinks people don’t lose quite as much of their ability to be aware of their situations when they’re high compared to when they’re drunk. “I know a few students who feel more comfortable at parties under the influence of marijuana versus alcohol,” she says.

Research from the University of Washington’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute states that cannabis is the second most common drug reported in college sexual assaults — and it’s almost always used in tandem with alcohol. Schneider says he has dealt with a few cases where cannabis has been involved. “All of the cases involved young women,” he says. “It wasn’t exclusively marijuana but marijuana coupled with alcohol. All of the young women said, ‘I was so impaired that I couldn’t reasonably consent to intercourse.’”

Per the University of Washington’s research, when combined, booze and pot could amplify the effects that both substances have on cognitive function, making it even harder for someone to recognize a risky situation.

“Recreational cannabis and alcohol are sometimes used in combination — however, their interaction has not been fully understood yet, as they affect the brain in different ways,” says Raz, explaining that alcohol increases blood absorption of THC, which could intensify the high you get from pot.

Mark*, a 23-year-old who graduated from college in New York City in 2017, says he used to smoke weed almost every day when he was a student — but he’d refrain if he knew he was going to hook up with someone. “I stopped smoking weed with girls I was hanging out with because I didn’t want them to get high and have them feel weird,” he says. “If I’m hanging out with a girl for first time, I get that she might feel sort of nervous, and I wouldn’t want her to smoke and be freaking out in her head. I don’t want to make a move and her have to feel intimidated and go along with it.”

For what it’s worth, there is some evidence that cannabis doesn’t cause the same level of aggressive behavior in men that alcohol does. A small study published in the journal Psychopharmacology found that alcohol increased aggressive behavior in heavy alcohol users while cannabis decreased this type of behavior in regular cannabis users. Research published in the Journal of Economic & Behavior Organization found that violent crimes (like rape) decreased in certain counties in Washington State once cannabis was recreationally legalized in 2012.

On the flip side, “there are reports that have indicated that one in four cases of violent crimes is by those who had consumed alcohol prior to committing the violent crime,” says Raz. “Based on the current evidence, we can hypothesize that by substituting alcohol with cannabis, which is a possibility, we may be able to reduce violent crimes.”  

The bottom line: There is no cut-and-dry answer here. The most important fact to remember is that consent is consent, regardless of whether you’re drunk, high, or sober. That means you’ve given your full and enthusiastic permission to engage in sexual activity — and that you can withdraw that permission at any time.

Story by Christina Heiser

*Names have been changed to protect their identities

Van der Pop does not endorse or condone the illegal consumption of cannabis.

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