Canadian Youth Perceptions on Cannabis, 2017
The teen years are a high-stress, often anxiety riddled time, and research shows that young Canadians admit to turning to marijuana to cope.
Research has shown that youth are unclear on the effects and harms of cannabis, which could put them at an increased risk for use (Johnston, O’Malley, Miech, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2015). This fact is concerning as brain development and mental health can be compromised if cannabis use, particularly frequent use, is initiated in early adolescence (George & Vaccarino, 2015). The World Health Organization compared past-30-day cannabis use among youth aged 15 across 40 countries and found that use by Canadian youth was the second highest of the countries surveyed (13%), being surpassed only by France (15%) (World Health Organization, 2014). This rate of use illustrates the need for a better understanding of the misconceptions and attitudes Canadian youth have towards cannabis.
To effectively prevent harms related to cannabis among adolescents, it is valuable to understand what youth believe are the effects associated with the drug and what could influence a youth to use it or abstain from using it. Youth are best suited to inform researchers about where gaps exist in current cannabis education and awareness efforts. This study aimed to examine what common misconceptions are held by youth, where gaps in evidence-based information exist and how best to move forward with prevention efforts. This work is timely as the current Canadian government intends to legalize and regulate cannabis during its mandate. This report will ensure that parents, teachers and youth are accurately informed of the effects of cannabis use. It will also aid policy makers, prevention specialists and researchers in developing evidence-informed prevention efforts for youth.
This study builds on previous research completed by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) (Porath-Waller, Brown, Frigon, & Clark, 2013) that examined Canadian youth’s perceptions on cannabis. The current study is based on additional focus groups conducted with youth from jurisdictions that were not included in the last study with the goal of verifying past research and uncovering changes or differences in youth’s perceptions.
This investigation adopted a qualitative approach using a series of focus groups to collect data. This method was selected in order to provide participants with the ability to engage in semi-structured discussion, resulting in data that might not be accessible through surveys or one-on-one interviews (Morgan, 1997). Recruitment strategies included collaborating with partners who work with youth, accessing youth through CCSA staff, conducting groups in the locations where youth were present (e.g., high school), and advertising the focus groups through bulletins and the CCSA website (Krueger & Casey, 2009). Due to this complex topic and to ensure that saturation was achieved, 20 focus groups were conducted, in six cities across Canada. The number of participants in the focus groups ranged from one1 to seven and all groups were run by the same two facilitators. In total, 77 youth between the ages of 14 and 19 participated, 36 (47%) male participants and 41 (53%) female participants. Each focus group was audio-recorded and the recording transcribed. The data were analyzed using inductive thematic analysis adhering to the procedures of Braun and Clarke (2006), and Frith and Gleeson (2004) with the assistance of NVivo 10 software.
Overall, youth considered cannabis to be less harmful than alcohol and other substances. Participants cited a number of reasons youth use cannabis, including fitting in with friends or family, the availability and acceptability of the drug, and the drug’s positive effects such as coping with stress. Fewer reasons were offered for why youth might not use cannabis, but these reasons included fear of getting caught by parents or police and the stigma of being labelled a “drug user.” In terms of understanding the harms of cannabis use, participants varied in their knowledge. Generally, they felt that the effects of cannabis are dependent on how often it is used, the amount used and the person. Long-term significant effects were considered to be limited to those who used the drug frequently and for a long period of time. As to driving after cannabis use, most participants understood it can be dangerous and were able to cite reasons why (e.g., slowing down reaction time), but again felt that these effects were dependent on the driver. Similarly, youth believed that cannabis would be detrimental to the brain in some capacity, but had a limited understanding of how and why. Most youth were unaware that cannabis was addictive and could lead to withdrawal even though many youth described characteristics of these conditions such as someone being “grumpy” when they did not have access to cannabis after consistent use.
Participants provided a number of examples of the ways in which cannabis is used (e.g., baked into food), the types of cannabis available to youth (e.g., shatter2) and methods for concealing cannabis use (e.g., spraying perfume to mask the smell). Participants viewed impairment due to cannabis as less concerning than impairment due to alcohol. Many participants considered riding with a driver impaired by cannabis as the safer option of the two. This opinion seemed to be related to the conception of impairment as equivalent to the physical characteristics common to alcohol use (i.e., slurring words, drowsy, stumbling behaviours), which are not necessarily present for cannabis impairment. The lack of visible impairment related to cannabis could lead youth to believe cannabis is not impairing.
Other factors influenced youth’s perception of cannabis. For instance, confusion around cannabis laws were cited as playing a role in use: some participants assumed it was legal to possess less than a certain amount of cannabis (e.g., three grams) and that police were unable to charge youth for possession under this amount. Similarly, many participants had not heard accounts of peers, friends or drug dealers being arrested due to cannabis possession, pulled over for cannabis impairment or involvement in serious or fatal crashes due to cannabis, making these consequences unrealistic to youth. All participants reported they knew cannabis might be legalized and many were supportive of this change, as they felt that it meant greater regulation as well as greater availability.3
According to participants, the media also played a role in youth’s understanding of cannabis, acting as a major outlet for the positive positioning of the drug. Almost all participants used the Internet to find out “facts” about cannabis and were overwhelmed with the quantity of information available. Previous prevention efforts were described as ineffective with school assemblies or lessons delivered by teachers being described as unmemorable. Participants suggested future prevention efforts should be interactive, delivered on a smaller scale (small group), ideally by someone who has experience with the drug, and unbiased information should be presented, including methods for reducing harms.
This study provided an opportunity to uncover what youth know about cannabis and where confusion lies, and to compare this information to the effects demonstrated in the scientific literature. Encouragingly, youth understood that cannabis can cause harm to the lungs and brain, and that there was potential for cannabis to result in addiction and impaired ability to drive, all of which is supported in the literature. That being said, a number of attitudes and contextual factors reported by participants correlate to risk factors for use, including perceived use among friends, low parental monitoring, availability and acceptance of cannabis (within the community, by friends and law enforcement), and the belief cannabis is not harmful. There were also inconsistencies in the thoughts and opinions reported: for example, some youth believed cannabis remedied mental illness, while others believed it triggered it, and some youth claimed cannabis increased confidence in social inter- action, while others felt it inhibited the ability to socialize. These findings illustrate the inconsistencies in understanding cannabis’s effects among youth. Comparison of results from this study to those observed by Porath-Waller et al. (2013) appear to suggest that there could possibly have been some advancements made in terms of a greater understanding of risks of cannabis use, although direct comparisons between both studies should be interpreted with caution.
The findings from this study and previous studies have a number of implications for prevention practice and policy. Youth made several suggestions for improving prevention initiatives, many of which are supported by prevention research (Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2015a).
To begin, providing clearer targeted messaging about cannabis to youth, including the role of law enforcement, legality of cannabis, risks related to cannabis-impaired driving and defining cannabis impairment can positively influence perceptions. Similarly, emphasis should be placed on the effects of driving while impaired by cannabis apart from the effects of driving while impaired by alcohol. Secondly, education and resources needed by youth to make decisions about substance use are lacking and the lack is potentially contributing to youth substance use. It would be beneficial to provide further access to resources such as supports for managing stress and mental illness, information about the harms of cannabis use, and objective information about cannabis (Griffin & Botvin, 2010). Finally, the method of delivery of prevention initiatives should take into consideration the unique needs of youth such as increasing parental involvement and using community-based initiatives to deliver prevention efforts.
With these prevention considerations in mind, the perceptions of youth collected for this report are part of a larger perspective that can help inform the development of policy.
Although findings from this study provide an invaluable perspective in terms of youth perceptions, there were limitations related to the data. Mainly, the study sample is not representative of the Canadian youth population, meaning results cannot be generalized to this age group as a whole. Also, due to the small sample size, it was not possible to analyze data by participant demographics (e.g., gender, jurisdiction). Regardless of these limitations, results from this study add to the growing evidence in the area and highlight potential opportunities for continued research. Future efforts should include an examination of why past prevention efforts related to cannabis harms (e.g., on the lungs) have resonated with youth and what can be done to educate parents and educators. A national level survey of Canadian youth perceptions would help to further contribute to our understanding of this issue.
With changes in cannabis legislation occurring in the near future it is imperative that education includes evidence-based cannabis messaging to ensure youth minimize risks to their brain development, mental health, safety, and educational and occupational goals (Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2015b). As research continues to accumulate about the effects of cannabis, it will be important to integrate this new information into current prevention efforts. The continued improvement of prevention initiatives will also require monitoring of the attitudes and beliefs about cannabis held by youth, as well as factors that influence use. This data can be used to ensure initiatives remain effective and targeted to this vulnerable age group.