When it comes to the impact of marijuana legalization on people’s use of the once forbidden substance, it turns out the results are truly a mixed bag. At least in Ontario.
Canada began legalizing marijuana for non-medical use in 2018 under The Cannabis Act, which was intended to “keep cannabis out of the hands of youth, keep profits out of the pockets of criminals, and protect public health and safety by allowing adults access to legal cannabis,” according to the Canadian Department of Justice.
A longitudinal observational study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence examined how the country’s 2018 legalization of cannabis flower and oil has affected Ontario adults’ cannabis use. It found usage increased among previous non-users while decreasing among people who previously reported being a cannabis user.
“Understanding the patterns of change that take place will be critical to understand the impacts of recreational cannabis legalization, both in Canada and beyond.”researchers write in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence
Subjects were asked ahead of the legalization whether they planned to use afterward. The researchers found their answers held mostly true, with the most commonly incorrect predictions among non-users. The evidence could indicate some are not necessarily afraid of, or opposed to, cannabis morally but would be willing to try it if it were legal and regulated.
“The current results reveal that systematic changes did take place in the first year of legalization, changes that were not monotonic increases or decreases, but divergent trajectories based on pre-legalization status,” the researchers concluded. “Understanding the patterns of change that take place, and indeed the mediators and moderators of those changes, will be critical to understand the impacts of recreational cannabis legalization, both in Canada and beyond.”
Among those changes are things like socioeconomic status, age, access and possibly race. The study surveyed mostly white, middle-to-upper-class adults, which the researchers note is fairly representative of Ontario, though not all of Canada.
The study suggests a decline in use among those who were well acquainted with pot was possibly because “legalization disrupted illegal markets and individuals who use illicit products may have reduced their use as a result.”
It’s not clear how effectively the Cannabis Act is accomplishing what it set out to do when it comes to access to illegal and unregulated cannabis. Last year, Joel Mader — a psychologist with Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre — told the Calgary Herald he hadn’t seen a decline in his teenage clients’ cannabis use, and most of them claim to be getting it from the black market.
In 2020, the illegal market still generated around half of Canada’s overall cannabis industry GDP, which was up 215% from 2018. While the legal market is now churning, creating jobs and spurring economic growth, the black market still looks to be thriving.
The legal market is still in its early years. Popular items like edibles and concentrates weren’t legal until 2019. Researchers are expecting time to tell how effective legalization is for preventing youth substance abuse and removing the popular plant from the underground black market.
The researchers note “the effects of legalization on cannabis use still remain unclear and likely affect population subgroups differently.”