Since the national legalization of cannabis last year, Canada has become the largest country in the world with a legalized cannabis marketplace. Due to the controversial nature of this relatively new law, there has been a great deal of research on the role of cannabis in our society, which may shed light on the future of cannabis policy framework.

In a recent multi-institutional study, researchers, including U of T-affiliated scientists, aimed to find the largest cannabis consumption group by investigating the demographics of cannabis consumption in Canada, which has led to surprising findings.

Young males are the most likely users of cannabis

The researchers evaluated the distribution of cannabis consumption across Canada using data from Statistics Canada’s 2018 National Cannabis Survey. They found that a small group of heavy users were responsible for two thirds of all cannabis consumption in the country.

Of these heavy users, males were reported to consume more cannabis than females, and young males between 15–34 years old were “disproportionately represented” in this sub-group.

Based on previous demographic data, “It is not particularly surprising that we’re seeing this particular age group over-represented in the heaviest users,” said Dr. Russell Callaghan, a co-author associated with the Human Brain Laboratory at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Callaghan noted that one possible reason for this trend is that males of this age group are often prone to risk-taking behaviours associated with alcohol and drug use across the spectrum, including cannabis. However, there are a multitude of factors behind this finding.

Potential impact of the study on preventing cannabis-related harm

The study gives basic insights into potential policy-making strategies in recreational drug use and preventive measures for cannabis-related harm.

“Usually when we understand the population distributions of, let’s say, cannabis use or alcohol use, it will give us a sense of where the harms might be,” said Callaghan.

A small subset of alcohol users — the top 10 per cent — is responsible for more than half of alcohol consumption in the United States, according to the co-authors. However, Callaghan noted that most of the common harms from alcohol use occur from light to moderate usage, due to a larger segment of the population consuming it.

Similar research for cannabis is rather limited, and it is still unclear whether the heaviest cannabis users account for the most common cannabis-related harms. A next step for future researchers, according to Callaghan, would be to understand the relationship between the population distribution of cannabis use and harm reduction.

“If you understand what we’ve done in the alcohol field, then you will understand what I was looking for in the cannabis field,” Callaghan remarked.

By finding the relationship between the demographics of cannabis consumption and cannabis-related harm, similar to previous studies on alcohol, policymakers are now able to focus on specific groups in order to reduce the potential harms.

Callaghan noted that treatment, incentives, pricing, adjusting cannabis availability in stores, and store density could all be viable options in reducing potential harm from cannabis use, depending on the results of future research.