Original cannabis journalism for Canadians

Rise in teen cannabis use predates legalization: Study

Youth cannabis use in Canada increased in the years leading up to legalization, according to new research. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files)

Youth cannabis use in Canada increased in the years leading up to legalization, according to new research. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files)

The Liberal government's cannabis legalization effort was partly predicated on concerns that young Canadians use cannabis at a remarkably high rate. Legalizing and controlling marijuana, the Liberals said, would help prevent more youth from using it.

But estimates of just how many Canadian youth use cannabis vary widely. An oft-cited 2013 UNICEF report pegged youth cannabis use in Canada at 28 per cent, the highest of 29 nations studied. (That report defined "youth cannabis use" as the percentage of kids aged 11, 13 and 15 who said they used cannabis in the past 12 months.)

On the other hand, the Canadian government's 2017 Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey found that just 19 per cent of Canadian youth used cannabis in the past year. (That study defined "youth" as teens aged 15 to 19.)

New research offers a different answer for youth cannabis use in Canada: 27.5 per cent. (That's the proportion of 33,307 Canadian high school students in grades 9 through 12 who reported during the 2017-18 school year that they used cannabis in the past 12 months.)

The research was published in the journal BMJ Open, and drew on six years of data from the COMPASS study, a series of health surveys conducted on Canadian high school students. It's not a random sample — the data only covers students from participating high schools in Ontario and Alberta, and the findings can't necessarily be generalized to Canada's entire youth population.

Still, the large sample size makes the finding significant, said lead author Alex Zuckermann, a postdoctoral fellow with the Public Health Agency of Canada who is cross-appointed to the University of Waterloo.

In an interview, Zuckermann said her research helps establish a strong pre-legalization baseline against which policymakers can judge whether legalization is successful at reducing youth access to cannabis.

"It's not enough to go, 'OK, here's what happened the year before legalization, let's compare it to the year after legalization,' because it's clearly a much longer (process)," she said.

As it happens, the research found youth cannabis use was already on the rise during the years leading up to legalization.

"(Youth cannabis) use was decreasing up to 2014/15, (and) 2015/16, but then it reversed, and it started increasing again," said Zuckermann.

Zuckermann's research doesn't determine why youth cannabis use might have increased in the years leading up to legalization, but she suspects it might have to do with "a climate of normalization, where cannabis use is seen as less deviant and more normal." (At the same time as youth cannabis use was increasing, access to medical cannabis was improving and the government was moving towards cannabis legalization.)

If the apparent increase in youth cannabis use sounds alarming, Zuckermann said there's at least one encouraging trend in her study's numbers: the age of first cannabis use moved upwards over the study's six years of data, meaning youth were likelier to delay their inaugural cannabis experience.

The increase in youth cannabis use also appears to be driven by occasional use, rather than frequent use, Zuckermann said.

"Not that it's totally beneficial to them, but it's not like we're seeing skyrocketing rates of weekly use among twelve-year-olds."


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