The legalization of cannabis in Canada has made it more challenging for some minors to access it according to a new study.
Youth Perceptions of Access to Cannabis
Very little research has looked at how the perceptions of access to cannabis among underage youth in Canada have changed since cannabis was legalized and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2023 study examines the effect of the early and ongoing stages of the pandemic on youth perceptions of cannabis access over time since legalization in 2018.
The study, which included Canadian high school students as participants, looked at overall trends in perceptions of cannabis access and examined the differential changes in perceptions of cannabis access among students over time.
Preventing Minors from Accessing Cannabis
When cannabis was first legalized, there was speculation and concern that this may result in an increase in cannabis use among youth. Aside from preventing criminals from profiting from cannabis and protecting public health and safety by allowing adults access to legal cannabis, the third public health goal of the Cannabis Act is to prevent underage youth from accessing cannabis.
The researchers write, “It has been suggested that the Cannabis Act is failing to adequately restrict youth access to cannabis given the ongoing high prevalence of underage Canadian youth who report using cannabis; data from the 2019 National Cannabis Survey also shows that accessing cannabis from illegal sources remains common in Canada post-legalization.”
Overall, the study’s data suggests that in large samples of youth, perceptions of cannabis access as being easy have declined in prevalence since legalization and through the early and ongoing pandemic response periods. The likelihood of perceiving cannabis access as easy increases with age and having experience using cannabis.
Ease of Access Down for Students
The study found that the frequency of students reporting that cannabis was easy to access decreased by 26.7% from 51.0% in 2018 to 37.4% in 2021.
Prior to legalization, the majority of underage youth reported that cannabis was easy to access (ranging between 58.5% and 63.5% from 2012 to 2016). The most common sources by which underage youth access cannabis are via family members, sharing with friends, and buying from dealers.
The prevalence of current cannabis use, defined for the study as use within the past month, also fell during the study period, from 12.7% in 2018-19 to 7.5% in 2020-21, even as retail sales of cannabis expanded across the country.
At the same time, researchers noted, “students who have used cannabis were more likely to report access was easy.”
Perceptions of cannabis access being easy increased over time for these users. Perceived ease of access appears to have been slightly impeded during the initial pandemic period but rebounded during the ongoing pandemic.
Use More Prevalent Among Males and Older Students
The likelihood of reporting that cannabis access was easy was substantially higher among non-current and current cannabis users relative to people who never used it, and slightly higher among males relative to females.
Older students were also more likely to report easy access. Students in grades 10-12, relative to students in grade 9, were more likely to report that cannabis access was easy.
Need For More Research
Consequently, the researchers suggest that there is an ongoing need for continued cannabis control efforts and research to address this issue.
The researchers write, “More research examining the issue of youth perceptions of cannabis availability is required as not only is cannabis perceived as more socially acceptable following liberalizing policy changes (e.g., legalization), but youth who report their ability to access cannabis as being easy are also at greater risk for using cannabis.”
They go on to say, “Although it has been suggested that youth under the legal age to purchase cannabis do not appear to experience barriers to obtaining cannabis within legalized contexts, our data suggests that perceptions of availability are changing.”
The researchers also suggest it is unclear if the Cannabis Act is working or if the pandemic impacted underage access to cannabis: “Our cross-sectional results highlighted that since the onset of legalization and throughout the early and ongoing pandemic periods, the prevalence of underage youth reporting that cannabis would be easy to access has been declining. While this may be an indicator that components of the Cannabis Act are effectively limiting the availability of cannabis to underage youth, we are unable to discern if it may have also been impacted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that limited peer network socialization opportunities given that peers represent one of the most common sources by which underage youth access cannabis.”