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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Cannabis Control Policy

 Cannabis Control Policy: A Discussion Paper

 Health Protection Branch

Department of National Health and Welfare

January 1979

Extent of Use

In the previous section, we addressed the problems surrounding the control of the supply of cannabis in Canada. Here, and in the section which follows, we consider the nature of the demand: how many Canadians consume cannabis and how the size and composition of this population has changed in recent years.

Widespread use of cannabis did not occur in Canada until the mid-1960s, but since that time the number of users has grown dramatically. Uniform trend data is, unfortunately, not available, but there have been two national household surveys and a number of regional studies, most commonly of school populations, from which to draw broad conclusions.

The first nationwide survey, in 1970, was sponsored by the Le Dain Commission. It gathered a certain amount of retrospective data for the years 1966 to 1970 which indicated that the proportion of adult Canadians who had tried the drug, or had "ever" used it, had risen from 0.6% to 3.4% during that period. A Gallup survey, commissioned by the Non-Medical Use of Drugs Directorate and conducted in January of 1978, revealed that this "ever used" category had risen to just over 17%, indicating that just over 2,750,000 adult Canadians had consumed cannabis at least once.

Of more relevance, however, are measures of the number of people who are "current" users, that is, those who have taken cannabis within a specified time period (usually six months or a year) prior to being surveyed. Indeed, at the time of the 1970 survey, about 2.4% of adults claimed to have stopped, leaving only 1% currently using, little more than 125,000 people. These figures had changed considerably by early 1978, with over l million Canadians aged eighteen and over (9.7%) having used within the past year, and almost as many (1.33 million or 8.3%) having done so within the month prior to interview.

The population bases of these two national surveys are not strictly comparable, but the percentage increase suggested is large enough to indicate substantial growth in the cannabis-using population.

In addition, there is reason to believe that these are minimal estimates, for the sampling methodologies employed by household surveys tend to identify people who spend much of their time in the home and underrepresent younger and more socially active people. On the basis of what we know about the characteristics of cannabis users, it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that many would fall into these two categories. The very nature of the household survey also excludes those who live in college dormitories; this is likely to be a significant omission, as the 1970 household data were supplemented with a survey of university students which yielded the highest use rates in Canada. In addition, the national surveys leave out people who live in hospitals, prisons and other institutions, as well as the more geographically mobile, or hostel-dwelling, citizens.

Nonetheless, these findings indicate that a large and growing number of persons use or have used cannabis. In addition, a significant proportion of current users smoke fairly regularly. The 1978 data suggest that close to 600,000 adults had smoked cannabis in the week prior to interview; somewhat less than half of this group, representing about 1.4% of adults, had used every day in the preceding month. The results of two surveys of Ontario adults, sponsored by the Addiction Research Foundation, suggest that adult cannabis use may be increasing at a faster rate today than was the case in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The incidence of current users rose from 5.8% in 1976 to 8.6% in 1977. The 1978 Gallup data for Ontario would indicate a further rise to 11.5% last year, implying that 3% of the adult population was recruited into use each year and that, in just two years, the proportion of adult Ontarians who had used cannabis sometime in the past twelve months had doubled. It is clear that cannabis use is not just a phenomenon of the 1960s, and is not confined to students and other young people.

Turning to adolescent Canadians, the surveys sponsored by the Le Dain Commission found that 11%, just under 300,000 teenagers, were cannabis users in the spring of 1970. (Le Dain, 1972: 204) There has not been a national survey of secondary school students since, but there are sufficiently comparable regional surveys to roughly piece together countrywide estimates. With some regional variations, these local and provincial polls show a steady growth in the incidence of cannabis use among high school students.

Research involving students usually identifies percentages of students who have used within six months or one year of the survey. "Ever used" data are only available for Vancouver secondary school students; in 1978, roughly 47% said they had ever tried cannabis, up 8% from the 1970 figure.

"Current use" figures vary considerably, depending on the year the research was conducted and the city or region covered. One consistent observation, nevertheless, is that the proportion of students using cannabis seems to increase yearly. In the early years of the decade, users generally represented 10-20% of secondary school students. In the past three years, studies have been obtaining figures of 20-30% for the most part, with a low figure of 15% for Prince Edward Island, and a recent high of 37% from Vancouver. Our only national data on high school students were obtained in 1970 (Le Dain, 1972: 203) and indicated that about 2% were using at the end of 1968. It is clear that this decade has, indeed, seen a dramatic increase in cannabis use by teenagers.

Although student surveys consistently reveal that cannabis use increases with age or grade, it is by no means confined to the older students: up to 13% of some samples of those in grade 7 (or aged 12) have been found to be using, with most surveys suggesting about 5% for this age group. The range for 17-year-olds (or those in grade 12) tends to be 35-45% using at least once in the six months prior to the research. Less than 10% of all students use once per week or more often. Although this implies that over one-third of current student users smoke with some degree of regularity, "once per week," certainly, could not be characterized as very "heavy" use.

The data do not permit accurate estimates of the number of young people using cannabis. However, it is probably safe to assume that 25% of high school students used marijuana or hashish sometime in 1978. This would place one million or more teenagers in the present using population.

Combining the teenagers with the adult population figures, one could conservatively estimate that 2,750,000 Canadians have used cannabis in the past year, 1,750,000 adults and one million teenagers. Considering some of the sampling problems involved in household surveys, that there is no indication that recent increases in incidence have reached a plateau, and that the student use estimates are necessarily lacking in precision, it is well within the realm of possibility that the current using population numbers 3 million or more. It would certainly not seem unreasonable to suggest that there are 3 million current users, representing one in seven (15%) Canadians aged ten or over. As the adolescent using population continues to grow and as older adult non-users are demographically replaced by maturing users, it appears that cannabis users will constitute an increasingly large proportion of the Canadian population.

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