Cannabis counseling study could help student addicts

Ceci Taylor

Since Colorado legalized the recreational use of cannabis in 2014, Colorado’s “stoner culture” has skyrocketed, leading to marijuana tourist guides, a 420 festival and more. 

However, some researchers have found marijuana to be addicting and detrimental to health. To help college-aged students who might struggle with cannabis addiction, Colorado State University researcher Doug Coatsworth has partnered with the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s Michael Mason to develop a text-based counseling system.


“The study is intended to reach out to college-aged people — they don’t have to be students here — who are using marijuana at levels they’re not really comfortable with,” Coatsworth said. “They may want to change, they don’t really know exactly how to change and maybe they don’t really want to go to counseling.”

The National Institute of Drug Abuse has given a $3.2 million grant to researchers from Colorado State University and the University of Tennessee Knoxville to test a text-delivered counseling program for young adults with cannabis use disorder (CUD). (Photo Illustration by Colin Shepherd | The Collegian)

Coatsworth said the study is only beginning, and CSU plans to do a preliminary study where it will recruit some students to simply give information on their patterns of cannabis use, but the study will officially start in the spring. 

The students who are recruited into the official study will receive around four texts per day over the course of five weeks, Coatsworth said. These texts are intended to help individuals make changes in their lives around reducing cannabis use.

“Participants complete surveys at the beginning of their treatment, and this information is used to individually tailor the four-week intervention,” Mason wrote in an email to The Collegian. “Approximately eight personalized interactive texts are sent to participants every other day for a month, and participants also can access ‘booster’ messages any time.”

Mason wrote that the study is important because of the addictive nature of cannabis. He said that while many people believe the drug is not addictive, it actually is.

Cannabis use disorder is a diagnosis given for the continued use of cannabis despite clinically significant impairment. (Photo Illustration by Colin Shepherd | The Collegian)

“It has the ability to interfere with people’s lives,” Mason wrote. “But it’s a small percentage of people that try that are going to progress to that level. Approximately 9% of people who use marijuana will develop cannabis use disorder. Problems are starting to arise in their relationships, in their work, in their school.”

Mason wrote that those who suddenly stop using marijuana can even experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, trouble sleeping and irritability.

Nathan Riggs, a co-investigator with CSU, wrote that the study is also important because 6% of college students report using cannabis more than 20 times per month.

“More than 2,000 CSU students use cannabis daily, which is associated with lower academic achievement and a greater likelihood of dropping out and physical health problems,” Riggs wrote in an email to The Collegian. “Many of these students would like to either stop or reduce the amount of cannabis they are using. This intervention is designed to reduce heavy cannabis use and, in turn, increase the likelihood of student success and healthy development.”

The two lead researchers for the study are CSU’s department of human development and family studies professor Doug Coatsworth and UT’s Betsey R. Bush endowed professor of children and families at risk Michael Mason. (Photo Illustration by Colin Shepherd | The Collegian)

Coatsworth said the study had already been done in places such as Tennessee and Canada and showed working results, but Colorado is a bit different than these places. 

“The environment at Tennessee and the environment here in Colorado is different,” Coatsworth said. “It’s legalized here. We think that students probably have greater access to it, and we want to understand whether the program works similarly or differently in these two contexts.”

Coatsworth said if the study at CSU is successful, it could become a permanent service to those who need it. 

“We have to run one or two more studies to make sure it’s working the way we want it to be working,” Coatsworth said. “Then we can integrate it more into the kinds of things that people can use, the kinds of things that can be used in the communities, the kinds of things that can be used in universities.”

Coatsworth said that everyone is excited about this opportunity because it’s easy for anyone to use. He said the text-based service gives people more control — they see a text on their phone, and they can choose whether to act or not. 

“But it keeps reminding them about goals they set up for changing their use,” Coatsworth said. “It’s like you have a good friend following you around who is reminding you about the things you want to change in your life.”

Ceci Taylor can be reached at or on Twitter @cecelia_twt