9/28/2004

What about side-effects?

It seems more Canadians than ever are going to pot -- smoking up, toking up and generally embracing the sweet weed.

In fact, the proportion of Canadians who admit to indulging in marijuana or hashish almost doubled over 13 years -- and the highest rates of use were among teens, a report released Wednesday by Statistics Canada suggests.

That translates into about three million Canadians, or 12.2 per cent, who used cannabis at least once in the previous year, the federal agency said in its 2002 Canadian Community Health Survey. In 1989, the figure was 6.5 per cent.

Despite the apparent upswing in pot usage, Prime Minister Paul Martin said in Ottawa that his government remains committed to marijuana decriminalization and will reintroduce legislation after Parliament resumes in October.

And Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh said that while he is concerned about the reported rise in drug use, he's unsure arguments that decriminalization would further increase marijuana use "have any validity."

"My view is that, if you make something illegal, some people are more attracted to it," he said. "It's just the high in getting something in a stealth(y) fashion ... If you allow people to possess it in small quantities for personal use, the allure kind of disappears for some people."

While the issue of decriminalizing cannabis has been much in the media spotlight, the latest national figures don't reflect those discussions: this survey was done in 2002, the year before an Ontario court judge made a precedent-setting ruling that possessing a small amount of pot was not illegal, and before Jean Chretien tried to ram through a decriminalization bill before stepping down as prime minister.

The hike in marijuana's popularity comes as no surprise to Edward Adlaf, a research scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, which has reported similar trends, particularly from its surveys of Ontario students.

"We've been finding during the '90s among students -- and these are seventh graders to 12th graders -- that fewer and fewer students perceive great risk in using cannabis," said Adlaf, noting that about three-quarters of Ontario students surveyed in the early '90s believed marijuana or hash posed a danger of physical harm; by 2003, that figure had plummeted to just over half.

A sea-change in perceived risk -- called "generational forgetting" -- is believed to be behind a resurgence in cocaine/crack use among teenagers, said Adlaf, explaining that most adolescents today have no experience with adverse cocaine effects, unlike students in the 1980s, who saw the death of U.S. comedian John Belushi, for instance.

Yet more recent deaths from ecstasy appear to have turned many teens against the "rave drug," said Adlaf, citing a survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health which showed reported use had fallen to four per cent in 2003 from six per cent in 2001.

The Statistics Canada study reveals that the increase hasn't been confined to cannabis, which includes marijuana, hashish and hash oil. The survey also found that a higher proportion of Canadians were taking other illegal drugs: cocaine or crack, ecstasy, LSD and other hallucinogens, amphetamines (speed), and heroin.

Overall, 2.4 per cent of the survey's almost 37,000 respondents, all aged 15 or older, reported using at least one of these other drugs in the previous year, up from 1.6 per cent in 1994. And 1.3 per cent, or an estimated 321,000 Canadians, had used cocaine or crack, making it the most commonly used of these illicit, harder drugs.

Cannabis use was most prevalent among young people, and it peaked in the late teens. Almost four of every 10 teens aged 18 or 19 reported having smoked pot or hash in the previous year. The proportion among 15- to 17-year-olds was three in 10.

A loosening-up in attitudes towards pot also has likely contributed to more people smoking up -- or admitting that they do. An Ipsos-Reid poll in May 2003 suggested 55 per cent of Canadians thought smoking pot should not be a criminal offence.

Greater availability of the leaf may also come into play. Students say pot is easy to come by and police are reporting increased seizures of marijuana plants, "very often through home-grow operations," Adlaf said.

Other Statistics Canada findings:


Almost half (47 per cent) of those who used marijuana or hash in the previous year did so less than once a month. About 10 per cent used it weekly; another 10 per cent smoked up daily.


Men were more likely than women to use cannabis (15.5 per cent compared with 9.1 per cent). The proportion of men was higher in all age groups except 15 to 17, where there was no difference.


Cannabis use drops off after age 24, although numbers in the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups were still substantial.


In every province except Manitoba, cannabis use was higher in 2002 than 1994.


In 2002, its use in Quebec and B.C. "significantly exceeded" the national average. Newfoundland and Labrador, P.E.I., Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan had lower than average rates.


The percentage of Canadians who had used cannabis at least once in their lifetime was above the national average in Nova Scotia, Alberta and B.C. For other drugs, Quebec, Alberta and B.C. topped the overall average.

Adlaf said another factor sending more marijuana up in smoke is the number of aging baby boomers, a generation that has come to be identified with the drug culture.

"We have a group who grew up in the '60s and a certain percentage of those continue to use," he said, citing a 1992 Ontario survey that found seven per cent of those aged 30 to 39 reporting cannabis use. Nine years later, that figure had rocketed to about 16 per cent.

"We have more and more adult users than we've ever had in the past."

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