A cannabis rush didn’t happen with legalization

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Make it legal and the masses will smoke. That was the general assumption about how Canadians would react to the legalization of cannabis. Many people predicted a significant increase in law abiding citizens suddenly feeling free to light up. Or at least millions of Canadians fessing up to a habit they had long denied.

Neither scenario happen. No one’s really sure how many Canadians are still smoking in the closet, but a dramatic increase in consumption hasn’t materialized, according to Statistics Canada. The federal data collection agency has seen cannabis use increase in most demographics, but only by a couple percentage points, from about 14 percent of Canadians using pre-legalization to 16 percent as of August 2019.

“These are early days, especially with the supply issues we saw in many jurisdictions. It’s going to be a few years before we have a really clear picture of what’s going on.” That’s how Rebecca Jesseman, policy director for the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, explains it. The federal government tasks CCSUA with analyzing evidence about drugs and alcohol, providing an unbiased interpretation to politicians and educating the public.

Their primary tool is scientific research and survey data, particularly from Statistics Canada. The data gathering arm of the federal government has collected stats on cannabis use since 1985. Starting in 2017 they moved surveying from yearly to quarterly, providing a clearer picture of Canadian’s pot use before and after legalization.

“We expected to see an increase in new users and the stats are bearing that out,” Jesseman says. “They’re people who wouldn’t try it when it was illegal but are now experimenting to see if they like it.”

Some increase is also likely coming from people who used cannabis in the past but wouldn’t admit it. “We call it social desirability,” explains Michelle Rotermann, a senior health analyst with Statistics Canada. “We know there is still a degree of stigma associated with cannabis. It’s hard to quantify how much. And it’s going to take some time for it to go away.”

Despite the stigma, she says Stats Canada is confident its data is still valid, because the overall trends are consistent across various surveying methods.

The two interesting ones to Jesseman are demographic. Before legalization, the main education push was informing young people about the potential negative side effects of cannabis use. The expectation was use among 15 to 17 year olds would climb dramatically. But the Stats Canada data shows they are the only demographic that is using less cannabis. It may be a case of kids not wanting to do what their parents, and as it turns out, grand parents, are doing.

Before 2012, not enough seniors reported using cannabis for the 65+ demographic to even show up on the Stats Canada data. Now about five percent of seniors used cannabis in the last three months.

“We wonder if the increase in older usage is mostly about CBD,” Jesseman says. “They’e looking for the health impacts not to get stoned.”

Whatever the reason, she expects another bump in usage when the second phase of the Cannabis Act legalizes edibles.

“I think a lot of people are turned off of using cannabis because they don’t like the idea that they have to smoke it,” she says. “That’s  good news story. But it also means we expect another round of experimentation when edibles and ingestible are legalized.”

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