Colorado is known for its sunshine, outdoor activities and being the healthiest state in the country. Ironically, it’s also known for its beer culture, liberal views on drug use and as having one of the highest rates of substance use in the nation.
A 2012 national survey done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that marijuana, alcohol and illicit drug use among adults age 18 to 25 in Colorado is among the highest in the country.
Likewise, a yearly survey done by CSU and compiled by the American College Health Association shows CSU with similarly higher numbers when compared to other campuses across the nation.
“These numbers are nothing new,” said Charles Smith, SAMHSA coordinator for the Rocky Mountain region. “Every year it’s relatively consistent data for our state in Colorado as well as for the region that includes Utah, Montana, North and South Dakota and Wyoming.”
There are three main reasons that our state ranks so high, Smith said.
Coloradans are less inclined to believe that drugs and alcohol are unhealthy for you. The substances also aren’t regulated as much as in other states, which leads to greater availability.
In addition, access to prevention programs and treatment centers is lower in Colorado then it is across the country.
“Every year when the numbers are released that question gets asked,” Smith said. “Attitudes are definitely a big part of it. We don’t see it as risky to use drugs and alcohol. We know if people think it’s risky they tend not to use.”
According to SAMHSA, 61.6 percent of adults aged 18 to 25 nationwide drank at least once in the last month. In Colorado, the number jumps to almost 69 percent.
CSU also drinks more than most other universities. About 72 percent of students at CSU drank at least once in the last month, compared to 62 percent at other colleges surveyed by ACHA.
Colorado also rated higher for the number of binge drinking episodes per month than the national average as well. SAMHSA defines binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks in one sitting.
At CSU, 27 percent of students reported drinking five or more drinks one to two times in the last month. The national average is 21.4 percent.
Alcohol use among college students is especially dangerous, said Donald Misch, the assistant vice chancellor for health and wellness at CU Boulder, because it can possibly increase the risk of death, disability, sexual assault, academic failure and legal difficulties.
“Alcohol is the number one public health hazard on campus. It doesn’t solely cause all those problems, but it’s highly associated with them,” Misch said. “There is no other single factor likely to hurt a college student.”
The trend is similar for marijuana. Nationally, 18.9 percent of people ages 18 to 25 smoked at least once in the last month. Head to Colorado and the number spikes to 26.4 percent of adults in the same age range.
CSU rated lower than the state average of 18 to 25 year olds, with 18.7 percent of students claiming to have smoked marijuana in the last month. The average on college campuses nationwide is 14.3 percent.
“Honestly, given the Colorado culture, I’m not surprised about the marijuana numbers,” said Andrea Coryelll, the assistant director of the CSU health network. “The laws are very lax here and I think there’s also a certain level of permissiveness among parents as well. Student’s don’t really consider it to be a drug.”
She added that often times people hear others talk about crazy party stories from the weekend and it gives the perception that that lifestyle is common when in fact it’s not.
“We have a certain percent of students that are drinking heavily, then a majority of students choosing not to drink most days and if they do they’re being responsible about it,” Coryell said. “We know that most people, if they’re drinking they’re doing it in a safe way.”
Skyelur Walters, a mathematics senior and Chi Choi a senior chemical engineer, both transferred to CSU from other universities. They believe the party scene at CSU is more relaxed than at their former universities.
‘Some of those high numbers, it’s just more of a reflection of Fort Collins culture. We’re a big beer town,” Choi said. “Students go home after classes and have a beer or two.”
Although officials at CU–Boulder declined to release results of their survey, the university had the distinction of being named “Druggiest Campus” in the country by Newsweek magazine in December 2011.
‘We have a gazillion programs that try to talk about it,” Misch said. “Our goal is to have multiple interventions over time in different contexts with the student body with the hope of reaching most people.”
Like Smith, Misch believes that perception and attitudes play a part in the high numbers.
“If a school or state has that reputation of being a party school or state, it’s going to attract people who want to party, so that’s part of the issue,” Misch said.
Senior Reporter Austin Briggs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.