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Photography Nick Fewings, via Unsplash

Gen Z turned to psychedelics rather than alcohol during lockdown

A new study reveals how drug use changed among college students in the US as they navigated life during the pandemic

As the world went through dramatic changes during last year’s lockdown, so did Gen Z’s drug use. With schools and colleges closed, young people – arguably unsurprisingly – found themselves drinking less, but taking more psychedelics.

A new study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that college students in the US reported smoking more weed and taking more hallucinogens, but drinking less in 2020. “The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the way young people interact with one another,” Nora Volkow, the director of the NIDA, said in a press release, “and offers us an opportunity to examine whether drug taking behaviour has shifted through these changes.”

According to the findings, nearly nine per cent of students said they took psychedelics last year, compared with just five per cent in 2019. This aligns with previous reports that microdosing was on the rise during lockdown, as well as the fact that research into the benefits of psychedelics is becoming more accepted.

In August last year, a study suggested that psychedelic drugs can improve users’ mental health by making them more accepting of distressing situations – for example, a global pandemic. Then, in June this year, another study found that psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – is as effective in treating depression as antidepressants.

“In contrast with the traditional pharmacological interventions, the effects of psychedelic therapy appear to last months and even years after treatment has ended,” Richard Zeifman, the author of the former study, told PsyPost at the time. “Understanding how psychedelic therapy leads to long-lasting mental health improvements across a range of conditions is not yet fully understood, but is important for enhancing and delivering psychedelic therapy to individuals that may benefit from it.”

Gen Z doesn’t just favour psychedelics, though. The new NIDA study found that marijuana use is at its highest level in over 30 years, with 44 per cent of college students reporting using marijuana in the past 30 days in 2020, compared with 38 per cent in 2015. Although those vaping weed more than doubled between 2017 and 2019, the increases levelled off in 2020, with 12 per cent of students saying they vaped it in the past 30 days, as opposed to five per cent in 2017 and 14 per cent in 2019.

However, alcohol use declined during lockdown. 56 per cent of students reported alcohol use and 28 per cent reported being drunk in the past 30 days in 2020, compared to 62 per cent and 35 per cent respectively in 2019. Binge drinking also decreased, dropping from 32 per cent to 24 per cent of students reporting it between 2019 and 2020.

“Historically, college students have reported the highest level of binge drinking compared to same-aged youth who are not enrolled in college,” John Schulenberg, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, said in a press release. “This is the first year where binge drinking was similar between the two groups. While binge drinking has been gradually declining among college students for the past few decades, this is a new historic low, which may reflect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of reduced time with friends.”

With schools and colleges closed for much of 2020, and many students forced to move back in with their parents – as well as, you know, bars being closed and everyone being unable to leave their houses – it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that binge drinking has declined. 

Similar results have been reported in the UK, with those aged 18-24 drinking above the recommended 14 units per week reducing from 18.4 per cent to 14.4 per cent during lockdown. One reason for this, addictions psychiatrist Dr David Bremner told Yahoo, is the fact that young people were hit particularly hard by COVID-related job cuts. “Young people’s drinking is in response to how much money they have - and these are the people in the most fragile employment,” he said.

Look back at Dazed’s prediction for how drug use will change over the next decade here.