High School Students Say Marijuana Is Harder To Access Following Legalization For Adults, Canadian Study Shows

High School Students Say Marijuana Is Harder To Access Following Legalization For Adults, Canadian Study Shows

A newly published study of high school students in Canada found that the proportion of those who said marijuana was easy to access fell in recent years, during a period in which the country legalized cannabis for adults and retail sales locations opened across the country while people also spent months social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite a growing body of literature examining marijuana use among adults since national legalization in 2018, the six-person team behind the paper, published this month in the journal Archives of Public Health, wrote that “there appears to be a paucity of research dedicated to examining changes in youth perceptions of cannabis availability over the same period of time.”

Using data from the COMPASS Study, a multi-topic survey of students in grades nine through 12 in secondary schools in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, researchers looked at responses from three points in time: 2018–19, 2019–20 and 2020–21. They considered responses to two questions: “Do you think it would be difficult or easy for you to get marijuana if you wanted some?” and “In the last 12 months, how often did you use marijuana or cannabis?”

During that timeframe, the overall frequency of students who said that marijuana was easy to access fell from 51.0 percent to 37.4 percent—a decrease of more than a quarter (26.7 percent). At the same time, researchers noted, “students who have used cannabis were more likely to report access was easy.”

“In our large samples of youth, perceptions of cannabis access as being easy has declined in prevalence since legalization and through the early and ongoing pandemic response periods.”

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 percent in 2018–19 to 7.5 percent in 2020–21, even as retail sales of marijuana expanded across the country.

Looking at cohorts of students across time, respondents were more likely to report easier access to cannabis as they got older, especially among those who used marijuana. Perceived ease of access was “slightly impeded during the initial pandemic period,” the study says, but rebounded as the pandemic stretched on.

“While the prevalence of youth reporting that cannabis is easy to access has declined since legalization and throughout the early and ongoing pandemic periods,” the report concludes, “the likelihood of underage youth reporting that cannabis is easy to access increases as students age and progress through high school.”

“Given that more than a third of respondents in the most recent wave of COMPASS data reported that cannabis was easy to access,” it adds, “there is substantial room for continued cannabis control efforts to have an impact.”

Authors said the declines in perceived availability in marijuana over time “align with evidence from youth in the U.S. showing that perceptions of cannabis being easy to access has been declining (2002–2015).”

“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.”

“It also appears to tangentially align with representative data from seven quarters of the National Cannabis Survey (NCS)” they added, “showing declines in illegally sourced cannabis among Canadians from the pre- to post-legalization periods (51.7% to 40.1% respectively).”

But they stopped short attributing the observed drop in availability to age limits in Canada’s marijuana law or declines in the illicit market, noting the possibility that the pandemic or other factors may have played a role.

“While this may be an indicator that components of the Cannabis Act are effectively limiting the availability of cannabis to underage youth,” they wrote, “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.”

As for their longitudinal analysis showing that reported ease of access to marijuana among teens rose as students got older, authors wrote that those findings were “not surprising,” considering “the risk of cannabis use often increases with age, few youth cannabis users quit during their high school years, and evidence from emerging adults and adults…that use of cannabis typically increased during the early stage of the pandemic.”

As for education, the study suggests that “future cannabis control efforts may want to prioritize the development and implementation of youth-focused interventions targeted to different age groups and tailored to those with or without prior experience using cannabis,” noting that there was “no significant difference in perceptions of access between males and females.”

Authors of the study included three researchers from the University of Waterloo School of Public Health Sciences, one from Université Laval in Quebec City, one from Brock University’s Department of Health Sciences and one from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Applied Research Division.

Earlier this month in the U.S., meanwhile, a federal health official said that teen marijuana use has not increased “even as state legalization has proliferated across the country.”

There have been no substantial increases at all,” Marsha Lopez, chief of NIDA’s epidemiological research branch, said in response to a question from Marijuana Moment during a recent webinar. “In fact, they have not reported an increase in perceived availability either, which is kind of interesting.”

“So whatever is happening with adult-use [legalization] across the country has not really impacted the younger people according to the data here,” she said.

Another analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that rates of current and lifetime cannabis use among high school students have continued to drop amid the legalization movement.

Notably, it found that high-school student use was trending up from 2009 to 2013—before legal marijuana dispensaries started opening—but has been generally falling since then. The first state recreational legalization laws were approved by voters in 2012, with regulated retail sales beginning in 2014.

A study of high school students in Massachusetts that was published last month, meanwhile found that youth in that state were no more likely to use marijuana after legalization, though more students perceived their parents as cannabis consumers after the policy change.

A separate study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last year also found that state-level cannabis legalization is not associated with increased youth use.

The study demonstrated that “youth who spent more of their adolescence under legalization were no more or less likely to have used cannabis at age 15 years than adolescents who spent little or no time under legalization.”

Yet another federally funded study from Michigan State University researchers that was published in the journal PLOS One last year found that “cannabis retail sales might be followed by the increased occurrence of cannabis onsets for older adults” in legal states, “but not for underage persons who cannot buy cannabis products in a retail outlet.”

The trends are being observed despite adult use of marijuana and certain psychedelics reaching “historic highs” in 2022, according to separate data released earlier this year.

A recent Gallup poll, meanwhile, found that fully half of all American adults have tried marijuana at some point in their lives, with rates of active cannabis consumption surpassing that of tobacco. Broken down by age, 29 percent of those 18–34 say they currently smoke marijuana, though that’s not necessarily representative of overall cannabis use, because the survey only asked about smoking and not other modes of consumption such as edibles, vaping or tinctures.

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