With the Canadian federal government soon to announce plans to legalize cannabis, researchers from the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU), a part of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE), are launching an innovative new study to fill a crucial knowledge gap: How do Canadians use cannabis?
“How adults use cannabis for medical and non-medical purposes has never been fully researched in Canada,” said Dr. M-J Milloy, a research scientist at the BC-CfE and an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. “Our study aims to generate detailed evidence on cannabis use, harms, and possible benefits to help inform the creation of the new public health framework and provide baseline data for monitoring the impacts of legalization.”
The Van Can Dispensary study is a new study of cannabis dispensary users based in the Greater Vancouver area. The main purpose of this study is to generate the evidence needed to inform policies that maximize the public health benefits and mitigate negative impacts of legal cannabis.
Now recruiting participants, the Vancouver Cannabis Dispensary Users Study is the first study in Canada aimed at gathering data from individuals representing the full spectrum of cannabis use, including medical, non-medial, problematic and non-problematic use. Researchers aim to recruit over 1,000 adult cannabis users who access cannabis from retail dispensaries in the City of Vancouver. Participants will complete an anonymous online survey detailing their cannabis use behaviours, beliefs, reasons for use, perceived benefits and experience of harms, such as intoxicated driving.
While there is research on cannabis use, it tends to focus on medical use or criminal penalties, not on the general public. As Canada moves towards legalization, says Milloy, establishing a baseline for future research after legalization is important. He hopes the results will be ready mid-summer, but says it depends on how quickly they receive enough feedback
"The general objective behind the survey is really to gather more and better, detailed information about the role that cannabis plays in people's lives in Canada, in order to really help to set the stage for the monitoring and evolution of legalization, however it might be implemented," says Dr. Milloy.
"For (legalization) to be a good drug policy, it has to be a drug policy that is based in public health and evidence," continues Dr. Milloy. "And certainly the government has signaled so far that is what they're hoping to do. To do that, you really do need evidence, and we don't really have that in Canada.
"A lot of the surveys so far have been done among people who have either been arrested for cannabis use or have sought help for cannabis use, or from the strictly medical cannabis use angle, but there really hasn't yet been a study to try and sample from the full gamut of cannabis users. So that's really what we're trying to do, paint the first picture of general cannabis use in Canada so that as legalization takes place, we can try and figure out how it's working, how it's not working, so that hopefully we end up with a system, that prioritizes and promotes public health in Canada."
This baseline data is something Milloy says he has heard from researchers in Colorado and Washington State wished they had established prior to legalization.
"We won't know where we're at (after legalization) until we know where we've come from."
"One of the things we hope to get at with this data, is what role are dispensaries playing in promoting those public health goals," says Milloy. "We will be asking people on the questionnaire, what kind of access control does the dispensary have in terms of who is able to buy from the dispensary.
"We're also going to be asking people what sort of form they want legalization to take place. This is an important issue that, to my knowledge, hasn't been explored well. There's been general telephone surveys of people saying, 'Do you want to buy weed in a liquor store?' but we hope to do a bit better than that and get detailed information on where people want to buy and what forms of cannabis they want to buy."
Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in the world. In Canada, approximately 10 percent of adults (or three million Canadians) are estimated to have used cannabis during the past 12 months. The Canadian federal government’s plan to legalize and regulate cannabis production, distribution and use by adults for medical and non-medical purposes will be the most far-reaching reform to regulating substance use in decades. There is a broad consensus among experts and policymakers that cannabis legalization requires active monitoring and careful evaluation in order to maximize possible benefits and lessen any negative impacts.
At present, there exists very little detailed data on cannabis use by Canadians. Although past studies have estimated how many Canadians use cannabis, other key statistics, such as rates of cannabis dependence and risk factors for experiencing harms from using cannabis, have not been well researched. Other questions, including medical and non-medical reasons for cannabis use and patterns and preferences for accessing legal cannabis, are also unanswered. The Vancouver Cannabis Dispensary Users Study is a first step to answering these and other related questions.
The survey is looking for one thousand anonymous adult respondents who buy marijuana from a dispensary in the city.
Milloy says recent estimates show about 3 million Canadians use reefer and this data would also give a better explanation into why and how drug users consume marijuana.
The study is being conducted by the BC Centre on Substance Use and the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. Milloy also received a $1 million dollar grant from a Canadian cannabis producer, NG Biomed, in 2016 for an online study of about 1,500 Canadians over the age of 15.
To participate in the study, go to https://survey.ubc.ca/s/VanCanDispensary/. Anyone 19 or over who has purchased cannabis from a Vancouver dispensary in the last year is eligible to take the survey.
You may also contact Dr. Lorena Mota (Research Associate) at VanCan@cfenet.ubc.ca or 604-806-8477 if you have further questions about the study.
If you are interested in being contacted for further research by our group, please email VanCan@cfenet.ubc.ca with the subject line I VanCan.