With Oct. 17 less than two weeks away, Canada's government statistics authority wants to spread the word it's ready to measure the outcomes of the country's cannabis legalization experiment.
Statistics Canada has been asking itself whether it's "well-placed and ready to assess the impact of the legalization of cannabis for non-medical use, and how does a national statistical agency respond to such a change," said Lynn Barr-Telford, director general of the agency's health, justice and special surveys branch, to participants in an online seminar on the topic of new cannabis-related data on Wednesday.
The agency has been "very busy" reviewing and updating its social and economic statistics programs in light of cannabis legalization, said Barr-Telford. That data will ultimately help policy-makers figure out whether the new law achieves the government's stated goals of reducing youth access to the drug, diminishing the illicit marijuana trade and giving adults a legal way to access a government-regulated substance, she said.
"Really importantly, we've been working to establish baselines so that as we monitor, on an ongoing basis, we already have some indications of pre-legislation consumption and various use patterns among Canadians," she said.
"This is fundamental if we want to be positioned to assess the impact."
Statistics Canada's journey into the world of cannabis data covers issues related to health outcomes, criminal justice and economics — and data related to those pre-legalization baselines is already making headlines. The latest release from the new National Cannabis Survey, for example, captured media attention with a finding that about 14 per cent of cannabis users who hold a driver's licence reported driving within two hours of cannabis use at least once in a three-month period.
That same national survey is already starting to reveal possible, but unconfirmed, regional trends in cannabis use that merit further attention, said Barr-Telford.Advertisement
"There was indication that cannabis use in Ontario appeared to be on the rise, and at the same time cannabis use appeared to have fallen in the province of Saskatchewan" on a quarterly basis, she said.
One of the biggest questions Statistics Canada wants to answer with all its new data, said Barr-Telford, is whether or not Canadians will actually use more cannabis after legalization. In its second-quarter survey, the agency found the vast majority of Canadians (82 per cent) don't plan to try cannabis or use more of it after legalization. Among current cannabis users, though, 28 per cent told Statistics Canada they'd likely use more.
But Statistics Canada is well aware that self-reported statements about using a stigmatized substance like marijuana might not be perfectly accurate, noted Barr-Telford. To that end, the agency is working on a more objective way to measure how much cannabis Canadians actually use, regardless of what they tell the government: estimating total cannabis consumption by analyzing samples from waste-water treatment plants in major Canadian cities. (The waste-water analysis approach has been used in Europe for years, according to a Statistics Canada paper on the topic.)
That kind of data could open other doors for economists, according Rosalie Wyonch, a policy analyst with the C.D. Howe Institute. Comparing Statistics Canada's future estimates of cannabis consumption with total cannabis sales data from Canada's government-regulated cannabis producers, for example, could reveal something important.
"The gap between those two things is basically your black market (cannabis consumption) estimate," explained Wyonch.
That knowledge could be applied to black markets for products beyond cannabis, Wyonch believes.
"This is the transition, in a general sense, of an illegal drug to a legal, regulated product," she said.
"And as we measure that, and gain insights about illicit trade, we may be able to develop more effective policies to mitigate illicit trade in the drugs that we aren't going to legalize."
New statistical insights into the impacts of cannabis legalization could even help government learn new lessons about drug policy in general, said Wyonch.
Cannabis "was made illegal basically 100 years ago, due to fears about its potential impact," she said.
"But we didn't actually have any information that suggested it was detrimental.... The more data we have, the more we know. We can avoid making mistakes like, say, making cannabis illegal and spending tax money on a futile endeavour for a century."