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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume I - General Orientation

Chapter 6

Users and uses: form, practice, context


Who uses cannabis? How do the patterns of use in Canada compare to those in other countries? In what context is cannabis used? Why? What populations are most vulnerable? What are the social consequences of cannabis, specifically on delinquency and criminal behaviour? Most important, what trajectories do cannabis users follow, specifically with respect to consumption of other drugs?

Partial answers to these questions, at the very least, are prerequisite to establishing policy on a substance. If the aim is to deter, one needs to know what is to be deterred and within what target group. If the aim is to help people for whom consumption poses a problem, one must have at least an idea of the composition and size of the group in question. And if one is looking for indications that a public policy reduces all use or at-risk use, then knowing the evolution of patterns of use within a population is a requisite.

In Canada, knowledge of patterns and contexts of cannabis use verges on the abysmal. In the early 1980s, the USA, the United Kingdom, and Australia introduced monitoring systems for the general population and the student population and use them as the basis of annual (USA) or biannual (United Kingdom and Australia) reports on trends. In the last five years, a number of European countries have introduced data collection systems as part of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). Canada, by contrast, has carried out only two epidemiological general population surveys specific to drugs (1989 and 1994), and only some provinces conduct surveys of the student population, using different methods and instruments that preclude data comparison. Furthermore, everything suggests that few sociological or anthropological studies are conducted on the circumstances or context of illegal drug use (specifically for cannabis). At any rate, very little has been brought to our attention. The result is that our pool of knowledge on users and characteristics of use is lacking.

We have no explanation for this situation, at least no satisfactory explanation. In the 1970s, following up on the work done by the Le Dain Commission, Canada could have set up a trend monitoring system. In the 1980s, when Canada’s Anti-Drug Strategy–to which the federal government allocated $210M over five years–was adopted, a data collection system could have been created. The fact that it wasn’t could be due to an absence of leadership or vision; a fear of knowing; the division of powers among levels of government; or the absence of a socio-legal research tradition within the departments responsible for justice and health. In fact, all of the above are probable factors. Whatever the case, it is our contention that the situation, unacceptable by definition, requires timely remedial action. We must resign ourselves to working with the scarce available data, and more significantly the virtually non-existent comparable data. We will also look at studies and data from other countries.

The chapter is divided into four sections. The first covers consumption patterns in the population as a whole and specifically in the 12-18 year age group and compares the patterns in various countries. The second section looks at what we know about reasons for and details on use, including origins and cultural differences. The third section deals specifically with cannabis user trajectories, including escalation. The fourth and last section covers the relationship between cannabis use and delinquency and crime.



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