• Allison Baker

FACT CHECK: Is It True That Cannabis “Normalization Inevitably Increases The User Base”?

MISLEADING. There is limited research specifically about the relation between cannabis legalization and increased usage. However, the available research doesn’t show a substantial increase in marijuana usage only because of legalization.

In September, Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, wrote an op-ed about the potential repercussions of cannabis legalization. In the piece, Wente argues that cannabis is “like any other addictive substance” and that the legalization of cannabis “normalizes it, and normalization inevitably increases the user base.”

Wente’s claims are misleading because they misrepresent the available data on legal recreational marijuana usage and the alleged increased potential for abuse.

Until recently, prohibition and a lack of funding have made it difficult for researchers to conduct comprehensive studies on recreational cannabis use in Canada. Most studies on how the legal status of cannabis has affected usage are focused on US states where recreational marijuana has been legal for years.

While heavy cannabis use can lead to addiction, data suggest that this happens for about 9 percent of users, according to a paper published in 2012 by the Mayo Clinic. This is less than with alcohol (15 percent) or nicotine (32 percent). Cannabis-use disorder is more common than addiction among marijuana users, occurring to some degree in approximately 30 percent of users. A substance-use disorder typically refers to a physical dependence of a substance, while an addiction is described as both a mental and physical dependence.

Wente’s claim that legalization inevitably leads to more individuals using marijuana is also misleading because there are currently no concrete data showing a causal relationship. In a study written for the Senate that was published in June by the University of British Columbia, researchers found that, in Oregon, legalization of recreational cannabis was “not observed to lead to an increase in the proportion of new cannabis initiates” in groups of young people. On the other hand, as reported in a November Vox article, a study by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center found that the existence of legal medical marijuana dispensaries in some (but not all) US states was correlated with overall increases in marijuana use and dependence for those states.

As the Vox article points out, this only shows a correlation between the presence of medical marijuana dispensaries and an increase in use, and a correlation doesn’t indicate cause. This does not conclusively prove that legalization itself leads to an increase in use or dependence. For example, Portugal’s decriminalization of illicit drugs, including cannabis, in 2001 could be used as an example of how “normalization,” as Wente puts it, does not necessary result in increased usage. In fact, since 2003, there has been a decrease in drug use among problematic users and adolescents in Portugal. The European Drug Report, published in 2015, showed that 9.4 percent of Portugal’s population aged fifteen to sixty-four used cannabis, compared to a 23.3 percent average in the rest of the European Union.