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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

Patterns of Use

It is necessary to identify the various patterns of cannabis use, if we wish to meaningfully understand the phenomenon in Canada. Most classification systems are based on the frequency with which the drug is used, the persistence or duration of use, and often some suggestion as to the role and meaning of cannabis in the user's social and personal life.

In the foregoing section, we distinguished between people who had "ever" used cannabis, to indicate how widespread was personal contact and experience with the drug, and "current" users, who had consumed cannabis within a year or six months of being surveyed. Within this latter category are people who may be called experimental users, who may have smoked cannabis once, or several times, but have not yet established the role it will play in their lives, if any. There may also be found those casual (or episodic) users, who enjoy the use of cannabis in certain situations, probably at the invitation of more regular smokers, but do not maintain their own source of supply. Occasional users may purchase cannabis from time to time, or even quite regularly, but tend to be selective about the contexts in which they use (special social occasions, on weekends, with certain friends, etc.) and tend to use less frequently than regular users. Those in the latter category have more thoroughly integrated the use of cannabis into their lives, usually keep a quantity of it on hand, and tend to smoke in a variety of social and personal situations, some, but not all, smoking every day.

It is worth noting here that many cannabis users switch from one category to another or stop using altogether; occasional users become episodic and vice versa, regular users become occasional, and so on. One of the encouraging aspects of cannabis use patterns is the apparent ease with which people move out of the cannabis-using population. Some, often after extensive use of the drug, discover that they are no longer enjoying it sufficiently to continue or that unpleasant reactions tend to predominate. In most cannabis-using circles, certainly amongst mature users, it is quite acceptable to pass along the cigarette or pipe without partaking, and such occurrences usually go by unremarked. Some people stop as a result of other life style changes, often drifting away without having made a definite decision to refrain from use.

The survey data do not inquire deeply into the role of cannabis in users' lives, but there is some anecdotal and observational information available, and it is probable that frequency-of-use is a fairly good indicator of seriousness of involvement. The 1978 Gallup national household study found that a large proportion (over 85%) of the adults who had used any cannabis in the year prior to interview had also used within the previous month. It indicated, however, that less than one-half of the current adult cannabis users were smoking as often as once per week. As mentioned above, most student surveys reveal that somewhat more than one-third of adolescent users smoke once per week or more frequently. Less than 15% of adult users claim to use on a daily basis, but it would appear that most of these confine their cannabis smoking to weekends and evenings. Only a very small proportion of users (1-2%, by one estimate) would seem to use frequently enough to be under the influence of cannabis for most of their waking hours.

Indeed, most cannabis use seems to be recreational and social, engaged in by persons of like interests, as a complement to other shared activities. Most use occurs in private settings, but some events and social occasions are associated with public consumption: certain concerts, films or youth-oriented bars, for example. Use in public is rarely indiscriminate, however, and usually occurs where cannabis users constitute a large proportion of those present and where they believe themselves to be substantially immune to arrest.

Although public consumption is less common than private, it is more likely to be followed by driving while under the influence of cannabis. It is thought that a substantial proportion of cannabis users prefer to avoid driving in this condition (Kahn, 1978:8), yet it has been estimated that between 50% and 80% have done so at some time. As indicated earlier, the highway accident implications of this have yet to be determined, but are a source of some concern, especially when alcohol has also been imbibed before taking to the roads.

The full implications of patterns of cannabis use in Canada await further research and the passage of several more years. There is no indication that recent increases in the using population have begun to level off. One might postulate, however, that we have already passed through the period in which the worst, at least short-term, consequences of cannabis use could have been expected to reveal themselves. In its beginnings, cannabis found favour among the young, the rebellious, and those on the margins of Canadian society. That it has now moved into the households of "ordinary" citizens raises concerns about road safety, increases in conviction rates for cannabis and the unhappy consequences that may result, and perhaps, some long-range health hazard which has not yet become apparent. However, remarkably few "victims" of cannabis use have emerged over the past fifteen years, when a large proportion of users were among the least mature, responsible and socially integrated of our citizens. Despite the widespread availability of cannabis, at prices which are low in relation to disposable incomes, the majority of users maintain casual or occasional patterns of use. Bearing these considerations in mind, perhaps we can anticipate future dissemination of cannabis use in Canada with cautious reserve, but with minimal trepidation.

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