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Canada - what's been happening since legalisation?

25 Feb 2020
This article was published 4 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

"Youth cannabis use* dropping in Canada": Graph showing percentage of Canadians aged 15-17 years who used cannabis - in 2018 (under prohibition) = 19.8%; in 2019 (under legalisation) = 10.4%. Source: Statistics Canada, 19 February 2020

Last week, Statistics Canada released their much-anticipated report on what’s changed since cannabis was legalised a year ago. The results were heartening for those concerned about youth use and the public health effects of legalisation. Policy and advocacy manager Kali Mercier compiled this summary.

The major stand-out, yell-from-the-rooftops result was that use by those aged 15-17 has declined dramatically, and much more than anyone would have predicted. The percentage of people in that age group who had used in the past three-months nearly halved, from 19.8% to 10.4%.

While it’s not yet clear the exact cause of this phenomenon, experts suspect it’s a combination of a few factors. One is that it’s harder for under-age people to get hold of cannabis in a legal market. Canada’s public-health focused model prohibits use to those under 18, and is strict on ID checking, with big penalties for those who don’t toe the line. Another is that cannabis is apparently less ‘cool’ when it’s legal, and the third is that Canada has been using some of those new cannabis taxes to invest heavily in education and evidence-based harm reduction campaigns. Without the stigma of prohibition, it’s easier to have factual conversations with young people that will help them assess risks when making decisions.

It’s worth noting that a marked reduction in young people using after legalisation was also found in US states that had legalised when compared with states that hadn’t – so we shouldn’t see this as a statistical blip.

The second excellent piece of news is that there has been no increase in past three-month use rates for the 18-24 year age range. This is the age group that uses cannabis most heavily, while also being more vulnerable than older people to health harms including mental health issues and psychosis.

Canada already had high rates of use in this age range (one third of young adults use cannabis there), and some were afraid that legalising might make these rates go up – that hasn’t been the case. (It’s also worth noting that in Canada, the federal age limit for legal purchase is 18, with some states setting the limit at 19. The proposed age limit for New Zealand is set higher, at 20.)

Although past three-month use rates are interesting to track, they only tell a part of the story. Many of those who ticked the ‘past three-month use’ box will have used only once or twice in that time period, and the vast majority will have experienced no harm from that use.

The daily use rate gives us far better insights into whether cannabis harm is increasing, because it can be a proxy for tracking harmful trends such as heavy use and dependence. The news here is once again encouraging – daily use rates have not changed in Canada since legalisation, and this is true for all age groups.

One low point in the report is that past three-month use rates across the population have increased somewhat, from 14.9% to 16.8%. Taken on its own, this figure might raise some alarm bells. But there are a couple of important points to note. Firstly, it’s adults over 25, with fewer risk factors, who are using more since legalisation, not vulnerable young people.  Secondly, that small increase in occasional use is not translating into more people using daily. That makes it far less worrying from a public health perspective.

The report also covered drug driving. The rate of cannabis users driving within two hours of using (13.2%) hasn’t changed since legalisation, and, the percentage of passengers driving with someone who had consumed the drug has dropped slightly, which is good news.

Finally, Canada has had some hiccups along the way to establishing a legal market. Some provinces have had trouble sourcing enough legal product and others still have very few legal outlets. Despite these early teething problems, one year after legalisation an estimated 29.4% of cannabis users reported obtaining all the cannabis they consumed from a legal source; nearly three times higher than before legalization (10.7%).

Many consumers obtained cannabis from multiple sources. When all those who reported getting at least some of their cannabis from a legal source are combined, the percentage of consumers accessing at least some of their cannabis legally increased to 52.0% in 2019. We can take from these figures that it’s unrealistic to expect a new legal market to replace an illegal one overnight.

If we legalise in New Zealand it would be sensible to assume that we will continue to have a sizeable black market for a number of years, until the new legal market becomes well-established.   In the mid-long term though, we can look to tobacco and alcohol for a point of comparison. The vast majority of consumers of tobacco and alcohol buy their products legally, and the same will almost certainly be true of cannabis.

Our overall conclusion on the early impacts of legalisation in Canada? A carefully considered, evidence-based model of regulation can make a positive overall difference to public health. And the real beauty of a legalised market is that Canada can use these statistics to inform decision-making. Officials will be able to track results over time and adapt the system when needed to get the best possible public health results – something that is decidedly not possible under prohibition.

There’s been a lively debate about these statistics on our social media since they were released, and we’re trying to keep up with the conversation as it unfolds. We’ve been accused by a small number of vocal critics of “cherry picking” or misrepresenting the data by focusing on the young people in our reporting. But this is precisely the information we’ve all been waiting for and we are not ashamed to tell everyone about it in our loudest voices – cannabis legalisation will help reduce the harm caused by cannabis. That’s why we’re promoting a Yes Vote and we stand behind that.

Read the full Statistics Canada article: What has changed since cannabis was legalized?, 19 February 2020


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