Surveys suggest half of cannabis users have increased habit amid COVID-19 pandemic

·3 min read

TORONTO — New data suggests half of cannabis users have increased their habit amid the pandemic, putting them at increased risk of addiction and other health problems.

It's prompting experts at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to urge moderation among those who use, increased screening by clinicians and continued monitoring of cannabis use during and after the pandemic.

Three online surveys involving three different groups of about 1,000 people revealed consistent increases last May and June.

Senior author Dr. Tara Elton-Marshall, a scientist with the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH, says the concern is that people may be developing new routines that will persist throughout the pandemic and beyond.

"A lot of people think that they're not at risk if they use cannabis but if you are using more frequently then it can impact your health," said Elton-Marshall, noting younger users are at greater risk of mental health concerns.

"Now's the time to take a look at your cannabis use – whether or not that has changed in response to the pandemic – and would be the time to consider cutting back or not using cannabis."

She pointed to stress, isolation, financial worries and boredom as likely factors in pushing some people to step up consumption.

Among those who said they increased use, the average frequency was four days in the previous week. The survey did not capture how much more that was than pre-pandemic habits.

The surveys were conducted in collaboration with the market research firm Delvinia and the findings were published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

Dr. Leslie Buckley, CAMH Chief of Addictions, says people tend to rely on familiar coping mechanisms rather than create new ones when under stress.

And since the surveys were conducted she notes the same stressors prevail today: "I do think it's getting harder for people."

"We know that COVID-19 has really been difficult for all (substance users). It's a perfect storm for increased substance use," said Buckley.

But while cannabis may alleviate anxiety and depression for some people, she says those effects are short-lived.

"In the long-term we know that cannabis really increases your risk for anxiety and depression, and it can also increase your risk for psychosis, which a lot of people don't understand," she said, explaining that psychosis makes it hard to know what's real and not, and possibly hear voices.

Groups at the greatest risk for increased cannabis use included those younger than age 50, people with lower rates of post-secondary education, residents of Ontario and people worried about the pandemic's impact on their finances.

Guidelines issued in advance of legalization discourage cannabis use entirely. But if you do use cannabis, the guidelines discourage smoking it; products with lower THC percentages are recommended; and it's suggested frequency be limited to occasional use.

Buckley says signs of a problem include daily use, concern from friends or family, a dip in job performance or job loss and if it's affecting romantic relationships.

The first survey took place between May 8 and May 12, 2020 with 1,005 respondents; followed by another between May 29 and June 1, 2020 with 1,002 respondents; and between June 19 and June 23, 2020 with 1,005 respondents.

All surveys were conducted in English.

Researchers note cannabis use could be higher than suggested by the data, which relied on self-reports.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press