Nearly a million Canadians who don’t smoke marijuana now are very likely to start after it’s legalized, survey data implies.
Whatever else happens when Canada legalizes recreational marijuana after the spring of 2017, pot will be easier to buy.
Canada has become tolerant of marijuana by historical standards, but there are still some barriers to the curious — you have to be willing to grow your own big, smelly obvious plants, be open to dealing with shady people who are committing a crime (and know where to find them in the first place), or talk your way into a dispensary.
Common sense says that if buying pot is suddenly as easy a buying a bottle of Scotch, then more people will be more willing to try it. And poll data backs it up.
A Forum poll published last fall found that of the people polled who said they hadn’t smoked pot in the past year (18 per cent of the full sample had) three per cent said they were “very likely” and nine per cent said they were “somewhat likely” to buy pot if it was legal.
Another Forum poll focused only on Ontario had similar results.
READ: How will legal pot be sold? Three things that might happen, and one that won’t
Extrapolating the poll results to the whole population, it suggests that about five million adult Canadians now smoke pot at least once a month, and about 900,000 are very likely to join in, about a 19 per cent increase. (The “somewhat likely” new pot smokers would come to another 2.1 million.)
The Forum poll showed that current Canadian marijuana smokers — people who said they’d smoked pot in the previous year — were more likely to be male, aged 18-34, and live in Atlantic Canada or B.C. They were more likely to vote Liberal or Green than Conservative or NDP.
WATCH: As the Liberal government works to make legal marijuana a reality, the Canadian Medical Association is weighing in. The organization says there should be an age limit for smoking pot and offered a wide-range of other recommendations that might not sit well with legalization supporters. Mike Le Couteur explains.
How much marijuana use rises under legalization has a lot to do with how it’s priced and marketed, says Rebecca Jesseman, senior policy adviser at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
Since the long-term effects of moderate cannabis use aren’t known, we’re better off presenting pot more like cigarettes than like alcohol, she argues.
“It’s a controlled substance, we’re not promoting the sales, where it’s accepted, and it’s legal, but it’s not glossy and shiny and branded and promoted.”
“I would choose the word ‘bland’. It’s there, it’s legal, and that’s fine, we’ll give you access, but we’re not going to encourage it. Bland and plain packaging. Much more like tobacco.”
Education is also key:
“We have generations and generations of moderate, socially acceptable alcohol use that has established social norms of use. We don’t have that with cannabis, and we’re in a really unique position right now to be able to start to develop those norms of use.”
Another thing that may lead to increased use is edible pot, which is widely available in U.S. states that have legalized marijuana. Edibles may appeal to people who want to try pot but don’t want to smoke.
“It does eliminate the possibility of eliminating the harms associated with smoking, but carries its own set of harms, particularly among naïve users who don’t understand that it takes up to a couple of hours for you to feel the intoxicating effects of cannabis when you eat it.”
“You have a brownie, and 15 minutes later don’t feel anything, have another brownie, 15 minutes later still don’t feel anything, have another brownie, and then two hours later you’re on your back saying ‘Oh, my God, what happened?’”
But the experience of U.S. states that legalized pot a few years ago suggests that legalization, when it comes, may be a bit of an anticlimax — people may try pot to indulge their curiosity and move on, leaving use rates not much changed.
A Cato Institute study of pot legalization in four U.S. states showed that marijuana use increased only modestly after legalization, continuing a pattern of rising use that had been going on for years.
Cato’s researchers suggested a “cultural explanation behind legalization: as marijuana becomes more commonplace and less stigmatized, residents and legislators become less opposed to legalization. In essence, rising marijuana use may not be a consequence of legalization, but a cause of it.”
READ: What happens when you’re caught driving stoned? Canada’s Supreme Court may soon tell us
In Colorado, which legalized pot in 2012, a state study showed that teenage use of marijuana actually fell.
“Use by young people is a concern, because cannabis can affect the developing brain,” explains Robert Mann of the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Falling use among young people falls into a national pattern of falling marijuana use among U.S. (and Canadian) teenagers, but in Colorado’s case legalization seemed to have no effect at all on teen marijuana use. (The state minimum age for buying marijuana is 21, the same as for alcohol.)
During the U.S. state-level debates about legalization, concerns were often raised that the move would lead to more teenagers smoking pot; a small majority of Canadians answering a Nanos poll this year though that legalization here would lead to more pot use among young people.
In its submission to the federal task force on legalization, the Canadian Medical Association argued for a minimum age of 21 to buy marijuana. (They said that a more ideal age would be 25, but recognized that that would leave most of the existing black market in place, defeating part of the point of legalization.)
Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado have all legalized marijuana in the past few years.