Vol.1, No.3, 101-108 (2011)
opyright © 2011 SciRes. Openly accessible at http://www.scirp.org/journal/OJPM/
Open Journal of Preventive Medicine
Personality characteristics and health risk behaviors
associated with current marijuana use among college
Carla J. Berg1*, Taneisha S. Buchanan2, Linda Grimsley3, Jan Rodd3, Daniel Smith4
1Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education, Emory University School of Public Health, Atlanta, USA;
*Corresponding Author: cjberg@emory.edu
2Department of Medicine, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA;
3Department of Nursing, Albany State University, Albany, USA;
4Institutional Effectiveness, Athens Technical College, Athens, Greece.
Received 7 September 2011; revised 16 October 2011; accepted 26 October 2011.
Objective: Marijuana is a prevalent substance
used among young adults and has serious psy-
cho soc ia l and he alth-rel ate d co nsequenc es . Thus,
identifying factors associated with marijuana
use is critical. The current study aimed to exa-
mine personality factors and health risk be-
haviors associated with marijuana use. Methods:
We administered an online survey to six col-
leges in the Southeast. Overall, we recruited
24,055 college students, yielding 4840 respon-
ses (20.1% response rate), with complete data
from 4,401 students. Results: Current (past 30
day) marijuana use was reported by 13.8% of
our sample. Users either reported infrequent
use of marijuana (i.e., between 1 and 5 days;
52.3%) or very frequent use of marijuana (i.e.,
between 26 and 30 days; 18.2%). Mutlivariate
analyses modeling correlates of marijuana use
(Nagelkerke R2 = 0.323) indicated that signifi-
cant factors included being younger (p < 0.001),
being male (p = 0.002), being Black (p = 0.002),
attending a fou r-year college (p = 0 .00 5) , b eing a
nondaily (p < 0.001) or daily smoker (p < 0.001)
vs. a nonsmoker, other tobacco use (p < 0.001),
greater alcohol use (p < 0.001), greater per-
ceived stress (p = 0.009), higher levels of sen-
sation seeking (<0.001) and openness to ex-
periences (p = 0.02), and lower levels of agree-
ableness (p = 0.01) and conscientiousness (p <
0.001). Conclusions: Identifying risk factors re-
lated to marijuana use is critical in developing
intervent ions targeti ng both use and prev ention.
Moreover, understanding different college set-
tings and the contextual factors associated with
greater marijuana use is critical.
Keywords: Marijuana Use ; Toba cco ; A lcoh ol U se;
College Students
Marijuana has been the most common illicit substance
used in the United States for several decades [1,2]. It is
especially common among young adults, with approxi-
mately 16% of young adults (ages 18 to 25) having used
marijuana within the past month [1]. In addition, as
many as 9.4% of college freshman may have a marijuana
use disorder [3], and about 35% of users meet at least
one criterion for marijuana dependence [4].
Marijuana use has several important negative implica-
tions. In terms of morbidity and mortality, marijuana use
plays a major role in motor vehicle crashes [5], has ad-
verse effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular sys-
tems [6-10], increases susceptibility to cancer [11], and
impairs short- and long-term memory functioning [12].
Not only are there health consequences, but marijuana
use has important psychosocial effects. Marijuana use is
associated with impaired poor school performance, low
educational aspirations and expectations [13,14], low
educational attainment [15], reduced workplace produc-
tivity [16], and the postponement of marriage and em-
ployment [17].
Certain intra-individual characteristics are related to
marijuana use [18]. For example, one longitudinal study
over a 23 year span from early adolescence to adulthood
[13] found that chronic marijuana use was associated
with poor self-control [13], more externalizing behavior
[19], and greater sensation seeking [13]. Higher levels of
depressive symptoms have also been found to prospec-
tively predict different trajectories of marijuana use
C. J. Berg et al. / Open Journal of Preventive Medicine 1 (2011) 101-108
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. Openly accessible at http://www.scirp.org/journal/OJPM/
through adolescence [20]. In addition, stress has been a
factor associated with using marijuana [21]. Moreover,
marijuana use has been correlated with other problem
behaviors, such as rebelliousness [22], delinquency [22],
and risky sexual behavior [22]. It is also associated with
an increased risk of use of other substances [22,23], in-
cluding cigarette smoking [1,24] and alcohol use [1,24].
Given the aforementioned literature, the present study
aimed to examine correlates of marijuana use in a sam-
ple of Southeast U.S. college students. Specifically, we
examined sociodemographics (age, gender, race, paren-
tal education, and type of school attended), other health
risk behaviors (cigarette smoking, other tobacco use,
alcohol use, sexual activity), and psychosocial correlates
(depressive symptoms, perceived stress, and personality
traits including sensation seeking, extraversion, agree-
ableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and open-
ness to experience) in relation to marijuana use.
In October, 2010, students at six colleges in the
Southeast were recruited to complete an online survey.
A random sample of 5000 students at each school (with
the exclusion of two schools who had enrollment less
than 5000) were invited to complete the survey (total
invited N = 24,055). Students received an e-mail con-
taining a link to the consent form with the alternative of
opting out. Students who consented to participate were
directed to the online survey. To encourage participation,
students received up to three e-mail invitations to par-
ticipate. As an incentive for participation, all students
who completed the survey received entry into a drawing
for cash prizes of $1000 (one prize), $500 (two prizes),
and $250 (four prizes) at each participating school. Of
students who received the invitation to participate, 4840
(20.1%) returned a completed survey. Our current a-
nalyses focus on 4401 participants who had complete
data. The vast majority of our sample (95.1%) was be-
tween the ages of 18 and 30 years old, with the oldest
participant being 48 years of age. The Emory University
Institutional Review Board approved this study, IRB#
2.1. Measures
An online survey containing 230 questions assessed a
variety of health topic areas, which took approximately
20-25 minutes to complete. For the current investigation,
only the following variables were included.
Demographic characteristics assessed included stu-
dents’ age, gender, ethnicity, highest parental educa-
tional attainment, and type of school attended (i.e., two-
year versus four-year college). Ethnicity was categorized
as non-Hispanic White, Black, or Other due to the small
numbers of participants who reported other race/ethnici-
ties. Highest parental educational attainment was cate-
gorized as high school graduate or GED, some college,
or Bachelors degree based on the distribution of pa-
rental educational attainment. For ease of interpretation,
these categorizations were chosen.
Current Marijuana Use. To assess current marijuana
use, students were asked, “In the past 30 days, on how
many days did you use marijuana (pot, weed, hashish,
hash oil)?” (ACHA, 2008; CDC, 1997). Current users
were considered to be individuals who smoked at least
one day in the past 30 days.
Smoking Status. To assess smoking status, students
were asked, “In the past 30 days, on how many days did
you smoke a cigarette (even a puff)?” This question has
been used to assess tobacco use in the American College
Health Association (ACHA) surveys, National College
Health Risk Behavior Survey (NCHRBS), and Youth
Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), and their reliability and
validity have been documented by previous research
[25,26]. Students who reported smoking on at least one
day in the past 30 days were considered current smokers,
and students who reported smoking on all 30 days of the
past month were considered daily smokers versus non-
daily smokers (i.e., those who smoked from 1 to 29 days
of the past 30 days). This is consistent with how ACHA,
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association (SAM-
SHA), and others have defined “daily smokers” [27,28].
Other Tobacco Use. To assess other tobacco use, stu-
dents were asked, “In the past 30 days, on how many
days did you: Use chewing tobacco, snuff, or dip, such
as Redman, Levi Garrett, Beechnut, Skoal, Skoal Ban-
dits, or Copenhagen? Smoke cigars (Please do not in-
clude little cigars or cigarillos, such as Black and Milds,
when answering this question)? Smoke little cigars (such
as Black and Milds)? Smoke cigarillos (such as Swisher
Sweets cigarillos)? Smoke tobacco from a water pipe
(hookah)?” An aggregate variable for any other tobacco
use in the past month was created.
Alcohol Use. To assess alcohol use, students were
asked, “In the past 30 days, on how many days did you
drink alcohol?” (ACHA, 2008; CDC, 1997).
Number of Sexual Partners. Participants were asked,
“During the past 12 months, with how many people did
you have sexual intercourse?”
Depressive Symptoms. Participants were asked to
complete the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-2) [29],
which is a 2-item depression screening tool, based on
DSM-4 diagnostic criteria, assessing frequency of de-
pressed mood (“feeling down, depressed or hopeless”)
and anhedonia (“little interest or pleasure in doing
things”) over the past two weeks. Responses were rated
C. J. Berg et al. / Open Journal of Preventive Medicine 1 (2011) 101-108
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. Openly accessible at http://www.scirp.org/journal/OJPM/
on a 4-point Likert scale and range from “not at all” (0)
to “nearly every day” (3). A total score > 3 has been
used to reflect clinical depression [29]. Using a mental
health professional interview as the criterion standard, a
PHQ-2 score 3 had a sensitivity of 83% and a specific-
ity of 92% for major depression, indicating that a PHQ-2
score of 3 is the optimal cutpoint for screening purposes.
Perceived Stress. Participants completed the Per-
ceived Stress Scale (PSS-4) [30] to assess the amount of
stress they experienced in the past month. Higher total
scores indicate greater levels of perceived stress.
Sensation Seeking. The Brief Sensation Seeking Scale
—4 item (BSSS-4) [31] is an abbreviated version of the
8-item Brief Sensation Seeking Scale. The BSSS-4 in-
cludes the items from the BSSS after examining the
psychometric properties of the BSSS [32] and retaining
one item from each of the four original subscales with
the highest item-total correlation. The four items are: a) I
would like to explore strange places; b) I like to do
frightening things; c) I like new and exciting experiences,
even if I have to break the rules; and d) I prefer friends
who are exciting and unpredictable. Psychometric analy-
ses revealed appropriate internal consistency (Cronbach
alpha of 0.75), convergent validity, and test-retest reli-
ability [31].
Big 5 Personality Traits. The Ten-Item Personality In-
ventory (TIPI) [33] is a brief measure that assesses cha-
racteristics included in traditional Big Five personality
inventories (i.e., Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscien-
tiousness, Emotional Stability, and Openness to Experi-
ence), two items measuring each factor. Each item con-
sists of two descriptors, separated by a comma, using the
common stem, ‘‘I see myself as:’’. Each of the five i-
tems was rated on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (dis-
agree strongly) to 7 (agree strongly). The TIPI takes a-
bout a minute to complete. This measure has demon-
strated appropriate internal consistency for two-item
scales (Cronbach alphas of 0.68, 0.40, 0.50, 0.73 and
0.45 for the Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscien-
tiousness, Emotional Stability, and Openness to Experi-
ence scales respectively). Although somewhat inferior to
standard multi-item instruments, the TIPI demonstrates
adequate convergent validity, test–retest reliability, and
appropriate patterns of predicted external correlates [33].
2.2. Data Analysis
Participant characteristics were summarized using de-
scriptive statistics. Bivariate analyses were conducted
comparing current marijuana users versus nonusers us-
ing chi-squared tests for categorical variables and inde-
pendent samples t-tests for continuous variables. Binary
logistic regression was used to examine factors associ-
ated with current marijuana use. To control for the po-
tential influence of demographic characteristics on the
primary outcomes of interest (i.e., marijuana use), age,
gender, ethnicity were entered into each model, and then
factors associated with marijuana use at the p < 0.10
were entered using backwards stepwise entry. SPSS 18.0
was used for all data analyses. Statistical significance
was set at α = 0.05 for all tests.
Current (past 30 day) marijuana use was reported by
13.8% of the sample. Figure 1 displays the frequency of
use among current users. Notably, the majority (52.3%)
of marijuana users reported infrequent use of marijuana
(i.e., between 1 and 5 days) and a sizeable proportion
(18.2%) reported daily or almost daily use (i.e., between
26 and 30 days).
Bivariate analysis indicated that correlates of mari-
juana use included being younger (p < 0.001), being
male (p < 0.001), coming from a home with less edu-
cated parents (p < 0.001), attending a four-year college
(p < 0.001), being a current nondaily or daily smoker vs.
a nonsmoker (p < 0.001), current other tobacco use (p <
0.001), more days of alcohol use in the past 30 days (p <
0.001), having more sex partners in the past year (p <
0.001), greater likelihood of having significant depres-
sive symptoms (p < 0.001), greater perceived stress (p <
0.001), higher levels of sensation seeking (p < 0.001),
and lower levels of agreeableness (p < 0.001), conscien-
tiousness (p < 0.001), and emotional stability (p = 0.002;
see Table 1).
Mutlivariate analyses modeling correlates of mari-
juana use (Nagelkerke R2 = 0.323) indicated that sig-
nificant factors included being younger (p < 0.001), be-
ing male (p = 0.002), being Black (p = 0.002), attending
a four-year college (p = 0.005), being a nondaily (p <
0.001) or daily smoker (p < 0.001) vs. a nonsmoker,
other tobacco use (p < 0.001), greater alcohol use (p <
0.001), greater perceived stress (p = 0.009), higher levels
Figure 1. Frequency of marijuana use among current mari-
uana users. j
C. J. Berg et al. / Open Journal of Preventive Medicine 1 (2011) 101-108
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. http://www.scirp.org/journal/OJPM/Openly accessible at
Table 1. Participant characteristics and bivariate analyses comparing marijuana users and nonusers.
Va ri a bl e
N = 4401
N (%) or M (SD)
N = 3795 (86.2%)
N (%) or M (SD)
N = 606 (13.8%)
N (%) or M (SD)
Age (SD) 23.52 (7.12) 23.81 (7.47) 21.74 (3.90) <0.001
Gender (%)
1267 (28.8)
3134 (71.2)
1008 (26.6)
2787 (88.9)
259 (42.7)
347 (11.1)
Ethnicity (%)
2009 (45.6)
1714 (38.9)
678 (15.4)
1722 (45.4)
1482 (39.1)
591 (15.6)
287 (47.4)
232 (38.3)
87 (14.4)
Parental education (%)
< Bachelors degree
Bachelors degree
2729 (62.0)
1672 (38.0)
2401 (63.3)
1394 (36.7)
328 (54.1)
278 (45.9)
Type of school (%)
2730 (62.0)
1671 (38.0)
2292 (60.4)
1503 (39.6)
438 (72.3)
168 (27.7)
Other risk behaviors
Cigarette smoking past 30 days (%)
Nondaily smoker
Daily smoker
3358 (76.3)
594 (13.5)
449 (10.2)
3058 (80.6)
408 (10.8)
329 (8.7)
300 (49.5)
186 (30.7)
120 (19.8)
Other tobacco use past 30 days (%)
3549 (82.0)
778 (18.0)
3281 (87.8)
457 (12.2)
268 (45.5)
321 (54.5)
Alcohol use past 30 days (SD) 3.29 (5.16) 2.73 (4.68) 6.77 (6.49) <0.001
Sex partners in the past year (SD) 1.51 (3.82) 1.38 (3.97) 2.36 (2.50) <0.001
Psychosocial factors
Depressive symptoms (%)
3632 (91.5)
339 (8.5)
3197 (92.3)
265 (7.7)
435 (85.5)
74 (14.5)
Perceived stress (SD) 6.17 (3.40) 6.04 (3.38) 7.01 (3.44) <0.001
Sensation seeking (SD) 3.32 (0.90) 3.26 (0.90) 3.70 (0.84) <0.001
Big 5 factors (SD)
Emotional stability
8.74 (2.87)
9.97 (2.31)
11.06 (2.43)
9.52 (2.75)
10.80 (2.31)
8.72 (2.85)
10.05 (2.30)
11.21 (2.38)
9.57 (2.74)
10.77 (2.31)
8.93 (3.02)
9.42 (2.32)
10.07 (2.53)
9.18 (2.81)
10.96 (2.29)
of sensation seeking (<0.001) and openness to experi-
ences (p = 0.02), and lower levels of agreeableness (p =
0.01) and conscientiousness (p < 0.001; see Table 2).
The current study documented novel findings, par-
ticularly that two-year college students versus four-year
college students were less likely to report current use of
marijuana. Moreover, findings indicated that lower lev-
els of agreeableness and conscientiousness and higher
levels of openness to experiences were associated with
marijuana use.
Prior research documenting that marijuana use is re-
lated to lower educational aspirations, expectations [13,14]
and attainment [15] might suggest that four-year college
students would report lower levels of marijuana use
compared to two-year college students. However, we
found the opposite, even after controlling for age and
other characteristics. Additional research might examine
qualitative differences in attitudes toward marijuana use
as well as contextual factors associated with marijuana
use in different college settings (e.g., technical schools,
state schools, liberal arts coleges, private schools, his l
C. J. Berg et al. / Open Journal of Preventive Medicine 1 (2011) 101-108
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. Openly accessible at http://www.scirp.org/journal/OJPM/
Table 2. Binary logistic regression model identifying correlates of marijuana users and nonusers.
Variable OR 95% CI p-value
Age 0.95 0.93, 0.98 <0.001
0.55, 0.87
1.16, 1.98
0.63, 1.26
Parental education
< Bachelors degree
Bachelors degree
0.86, 1.36
Type of school
0.50, 0.88
Other risk behaviors
Cigarette smoking past 30 days (%)
Nondaily smoker
Daily smoker
1.35, 2.45
1.06, 1.10
Other tobacco use past 30 days (%)
3.42, 5.58
Alcohol use past 30 days (SD) 1.08 1.06, 1.10 <0.001
Sex partners in the past year (SD) 1.02 1.00, 1.05 0.06
Psychosocial factors
Perceived stress (SD) 1.05 1.01, 1.08 0.009
Sensation seeking (SD) 1.41 1.22, 1.62 <0.001
Big 5 factors (SD)
0.89, 0.99
0.84, 0.92
1.01, 1.13
Nagelkerke R2 = 0.323.
torically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges,
With regard to personality traits, lower levels of
agreeableness and conscientiousness and higher levels of
openness to experiences were associated with marijuana
use. Although these factors are associated with sensation
seeking (agreeableness: r = –0.07; conscientiousness: r =
–0.05; and openness: r = 0.25), they are not highly cor-
related with this well established correlate of marijuana
use. Thus, these findings contribute to literature aimed at
identifying individuals at risk for marijuana use and po-
tential targets for intervention. Low levels of conscien-
tiousness may indicate a risk for marijuana use but also
poor school performance, which has been previously
associated with marijuana use [13,14]. Moreover, those
low in agreeableness but high in openness to experience
might indicate that those less receptive to conventional
societal norms may be at risk for marijuana use.
The data support prior research findings indicating
that marijuana use is associated with greater sensation
seeking [13], higher levels of depressive symptoms [20],
greater stress [21], risky sexual behavior [22], alcohol
use [1,24], and cigarette smoking [1,24]. Specifically in
regard to cigarette smoking, this is a concern, as concur-
rent use of marijuana and tobacco is associated with in-
creased symptoms of cannabis dependence [34]. Addi-
tionally, both cigarette and marijuana smoke contain
carcinogenic compounds [35], which could result in in-
creased health risks.
Finally, in the combined sample of students from
two-year and four-year colleges, we found that approxi-
mately 14% used marijuana within the past month, with
half of these users smoking marijuana on five days or
less. However, the other half used marijuana at a fre-
C. J. Berg et al. / Open Journal of Preventive Medicine 1 (2011) 101-108
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quency equivalent to at least once a week, with one fifth
of users smoking marijuana either daily or almost daily.
In contrast to national data sets, this study documented a
slightly lower rate of marijuana use than national sur-
veys [1], which may reflect the fact that the current sam-
ple was comprised of young adults attending either two-
or four-year colleges. One possibility is that marijuana
use may be more prevalent among non-college attending
adults [13-15].
The current findings have important implications for
research and practice. First, variability in marijuana use
among subgroups warrants further research, as our find-
ings documented a lower prevalence of marijuana use
than national statistics. This may be attributed to the ge-
ographic location, educational aspirations, or other cha-
racteristics of the participant pool. It is critical to under-
stand the underlying factors contributing to marijuana
use and develop successful interventions targeting young
adult marijuana use and co-occurring health risk behav-
iors. In the context of college health and mental health
services, providers are advised to comprehensively screen
for substance use and other health risks (e.g., number of
partners, safe sex practices). Health care providers should
be prepared to assess the severity of substance use and
determine appropriate interventions which may include
stress management and addressing symptoms of depress-
4.1. Limitations
A number of important limitations should be consid-
ered when interpreting data from this study. First, the
survey sample was largely female and drawn from six
Southeast colleges. Despite the fact that this sample re-
flects the characteristics of these school populations and
has good representation of White and Black ethnic back-
grounds, it may not generalize to other college popula-
tions. Second, the survey response rate was 20.1%,
which may seem low and might suggest responder bias.
However, previous online research has yielded similar
response rates (29% - 32%) among the general popula-
tion [36] and a wide range of response rates (17% - 52%)
among college students [37]. We are also unable to as-
certain how many participants did not open the e-mail or
had inactive accounts, which impacts what the true “de-
nominator” for this response rate may have been. Prior
work has demonstrated that, despite lower response rates,
internet surveys yield similar statistics regarding health
behaviors compared to mail and phone surveys [38]. In
addition, the cross-sectional nature of the data prohibits
the establishment of causality, as temporality, frequency
and dose/response issues cannot be assessed. Moreover,
the overall goal of the survey was not to fully assess ma-
rijuana use; thus, it lacked comprehensive assessments
of marijuana use history, attitudes, beliefs, etc. Finally,
data are derived from self-report and may be subject to
4.2. Conclusions
This study documents lower reported use of marijuana
among two-year college students as well as unique per-
sonality factors related to marijuana use among college
students, specifically lower agreeableness and conscien-
tiousness and greater openness to new experiences. This
study suggests that these personality characteristics may
assist researchers and practitioners in identifying those at
risk for marijuana use and develop targeted interventions
to address marijuana use among young adults.
This research was supported by the National Cancer Institute
(1K07CA139114-01A1; PI: Berg) and the Georgia Cancer Coalition
(PI: Berg). We would like to thank our collaborators across the state of
Georgia in developing and administering this survey.
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