After last week’s blog about the cannabis resources available for parents and youth, I spent a few hours examining some of the research that has begun to emerge about the impact of legalization on the rates of use of cannabis. Possibly the most striking thing I learned, that I am still examining, is that legalization seems to have had a different impact in Canada as compared with the United States.

Cannabis became legal in Canada in October 2017. Even before legalization, Canadian youth used more cannabis than their counterparts in any other part of the world. In fact, research showed that even before cannabis was legalized, more Canadian youth than ever before were using the drug. A study that used data from 230,000 Canadian high school students showed that there was a surge in the number of youth using cannabis in the period just prior to legalization. It’s important to consider this information in the context that cannabis is not even legal for youth in Canada below the age of 18 or nineteen, depending on the province or territory where the youth resides. This would suggest that the fact that cannabis was being legalized had an impact on the acceptance that it was okay to use this substance even if it wasn’t going to be legal for you to use it.

In May 2019, Statistics Canada released a quarterly report that showed that, since legalization of cannabis, rates of use had increased for persons aged 15 or older. Having said this, 15 to 24 year olds continued to be the highest users of cannabis in the country, with 30 percent of this age group admitting that they used the drug. This is not a change from the period just prior to legalization and so it will be important to watch the trends that emerge the longer cannabis is legal in Canada.

Contrast this information with the fact that one of the first large studies coming out of the United States since cannabis has been legalized in 33 states shows that rates of cannabis use in American teens has declined. This does make one wonder what the difference in legalization is that has resulted in what seems to be very different impacts. If there is a difference that can be determined, this is important since ever increasing use of cannabis by youth in Canada will affect the health of young Canadians. Cannabis is not a benign substance. It has short and long term health impacts – in particular, mental health impacts.

The lead author in the study that showed a surge in cannabis use prior to legalization suggested that the fact of legalization and greater medicinal use of cannabis have meant that cannabis is no longer seen as a harmful substance. If his conclusion is correct, then it suggests that the public health campaign accompanying the legalization of cannabis in Canada has not educated the public, and especially youth, to the extent that is necessary.

Not only is further study needed in Canada to examine how legalization is affecting the rates of use of cannabis and its health impact, it is time to beef up the public health campaign. It is also likely necessary to examine the medicinal uses of cannabis more thoroughly. I have expressed concerns about the impact on youth, because I am familiar with the impact on youth mental health. I wonder if there are other clinicians and caregivers worried about the health impact of cannabis on other age groups.

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