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Puff, puff, pass out

The college student’s love affair with the dab pen


Like all the healthiest habits, sleep has become a chore of Herculean proportions. The eyes droop, the hand pats blindly for the light switch, the head hits the pillow. Suddenly, you’re more awake than ever. So when college students find something that makes passing out a little easier, it can quickly become a staple in the nighttime routine.

Enter: marijuana. One hit of the bedside dab pen, and the eyes lay heavier.

“I started using weed to fall asleep my freshman fall quarter,” Denise, a fourth-year student, said. “I found I could fall asleep for once. Melatonin never worked, and my medication never made me pass out.”

Denise isn’t alone as far as campus culture is concerned, if an entire marijuana strain named after UW is anything to go by. Third-year student Sasha — who, like Denise, opted to remain anonymous under a pseudonym — reported that they rely on weed seven nights a week to fall asleep. 

Horacio de la Iglesia, UW biology professor and head of the de la Iglesia Lab, a laboratory dedicated to studying the biological rhythms of sleep, has his doubts.

According to de la Iglesia, significant studies on marijuana are sorely lacking. Because the federal government hasn't allocated funds for studies on cannabis advantages until recently, there is no definitive proven benefit of using marijuana to sleep.

“The evidence there is, [is] in fact against a benefit,” de la Iglesia said. “When you’re withdrawing from marijuana — say you’re a frequent user and you stop taking it — then your sleep suddenly gets really bad. Some people think that means, ‘Oh, marijuana is helping me,’ but it wasn’t to begin with.”

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What it does help with, directly, is anxiety, and for many people, therein lies the root cause of sleeplessness.

“If I’m not using marijuana, I’m using melatonin in order to get to sleep,” Sasha said. “It’s a hundred percent an anxiety thing. I feel like I can’t get my brain to shut up if I don’t take something.”

This is also where drugs like benzodiazepine, clonazepam, or Valium come in. While many people take them for sleep, their sole purpose is anxiety reduction. If a person’s insomnia stems from an anxiety disorder, these drugs can help, but de la Iglesia argues that this is an entirely different situation — a separate conversation than that of sleep aids.

It's a case-by-case consideration, of course. Sometimes, the collegiate environment can not only problematize “sleep hygiene” practices — it all but forbids them. High levels of stimulation are unavoidable, especially late at night, and with packed schedules, sleep deprivation is at best undesirable and more often not an option.

Know the risks, then, and know the stakes, but at the end of the day, just learn what works for you — and get some sleep.  

Reach writer Ariana Sutherland at Twitter: @aristhrlnd.

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