How Legalization Has Impacted Cannabis Use

One of the biggest issues surrounding the cannabis debate has been the social impact of legalization.  Anti-legalization voices have long claimed that legalizing marijuana will normalize it, leading to an increase in its use.  The contention is that as the number of users rises, so will the social consequences, including addiction and other public health issues.

The problem is that, for a long time, there has been very little data to go on.  Since this is effectively a brand new domain, with basically no significant models to look at, its impact has long been a matter of speculation.

However, since the landmark legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado in 2012 and the nation-wide legalization that took place in Canada last year, we’re now starting to get a bit more of a big picture look at what effect these moves have had on cannabis use among the public.

Cannabis Use Statistics Since Legalization

To get a better sense of what’s going on, it’s important to get a firm grasp on the statistics.  And that first means looking at how many people are actually using cannabis, and if that number has gone up since it’s been legalized.

Cannabis Use In Canada

Since last October, most of the data coming out of Canada indicates increasing use.  According to a survey from Statistics Canada released in May of this year, 18% of Canadians 15 and older reported using cannabis, an increase of 4% from the year prior to legalization.

What’s interesting about the report is in the specific demographics – consumption levels rose from 16% to 22% for males in general, while the consumption among people aged 45 to 64 rose from 9% to 14%.

The same report also indicated that the rate of first-time users has increased since legalization, with 646,000 people reporting that they used cannabis for the first time during the first three months of 2019.

It’s worth pointing out that the report stressed the fact that many factors have remained consistent, with more men using cannabis than women and younger users representing the largest demographic.  It also found that the rate of daily users has remained unchanged, with “weekly and occasional” use seeing the biggest boost.

With this all said, cannabis has only been legal in Canada for about a year, so the figures that we do have may not be telling us the whole story – but it does provide us with some indication as to what’s going on.

Since last October, most of the data coming out of Canada indicates increasing use.
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Cannabis Use In Legal US States

One of the places where we can get a slightly better sense of overall use rates are in US states with multiple years of legal cannabis.

In Colorado, surveys by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released last year indicate that while use has increased for adults, the rate of teens and youth consuming cannabis has remained unchanged.

A similar phenomenon has been found in Washington state.  In fact, a number of reports have actually found that teens and youth have been using less.  According to one study conducted between 2014 and 2016, the cannabis consumption rate among middle and high school students fell slightly – a surprising and encouraging finding.

Problematic Use and Addiction

While it’s important to look at the overall number of users, it’s equally important to look at other factors and trends which could give us a better look at the impact that legalization has had.

According to one new study, not only has the rate of cannabis use since legalization increased, but so has “problematic use”.  Like the report from Statistics Canada, the study looked specifically at use frequency (how often users are consuming cannabis) as well as for indications of cannabis use disorder (CUD), concentrating on four of the oldest and most well-established markets in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

The study found that, among the population, it was the older users over the age of 26 who are most at risk of developing CUD.  Specifically, it found a past-month use increase from 5.65% to 7.10%, past-month frequent use from 2.13% to 2.62% and past-year cannabis use disorder from 0.90% to 1.23%.

While some have been alarmed by the findings, there are a few things to note about the study.

First, it’s important to point out that the researchers themselves were careful not to overstate the results, stating that “further studies are warranted to assess how these increases occur and to identify subpopulations that may be especially vulnerable”.

The researchers were also clear that this isn’t necessarily a case against legalization.  According to Magdalena Cerdá, lead author of the study, “as states legalize marijuana, we need to be measuring public health effects”, and that “it’s a responsible way to legalize.”

Key Takeaways

With all of this information on cannabis use over the last few years, it’s still difficult to tell how exactly the government and public health officials should be responding to this.  On the one hand, the fact that problematic use may be on the rise is indeed worrying, and something that’s worth keeping an eye on.

But it’s also worth pointing out (again) that legal cannabis is a very new phenomenon.  To draw a comparison to alcohol, it’s been close to a century since the end of prohibition in North America.  Those interested in examining the impact that it’s had on liquor consumption, alcoholism and social norms have nearly 100 years worth of data spread across two countries (not to mention countless other countries with longer histories of legal booze) at their disposal.

When it comes to cannabis, however, the reality is that we only have 7 years of data in the oldest legalization states, and a year’s worth of data in the only G7 country so far to go legal at the federal level.  It’s hard to draw any firm conclusions based on the small amount of data we’ve gathered so far. As time goes on and more and more jurisdictions go legal, we may very well find other trends start to emerge.