What effect has cannabis legalisation had in Canada and the USA?

July 24, 2023

With cannabis legalised in Canada and the USA for several years, we thought it time to take a deeper look at what’s happened as a result. By looking at the societal and medical outlook in two countries with values and cultures that are closely aligned with our own, we can get some insights into what would happen if cannabis legalisation occurred here. 

Rather than wanting to make predictions, or push assertions, we want to give a broad picture of what’s known, as well as what’s still unknown about life in the USA and Canada with legal cannabis now the norm. 

The first thing to say is that for purposes of brevity and readability, we’re not going to rigidly separate out the finer points of Canadian and American law and culture. We’re instead going to treat them as two components of the same assessment, where the aim is simply to get a better understanding of how legalised cannabis impacts daily life at a societal level. 

First things first, it’s perhaps not surprising that legalised recreational cannabis has resulted in a marked decrease in the amount of prescribed medicinal cannabis. Unlike in the UK, where a cannabis prescription is virtually impossible to acquire, it was far more common in both countries prior to full legalisation. 

Studies have been conducted

Studies show that Canadian cannabis legalisation for recreational use resulted in “significant reductions in medical cannabis use in 7 out of 10 Canadian provinces” and that this trend continues robustly. This is by no means surprising and proof that many cannabis users who were smoking recreationally were doing so for health and wellness reasons, rather than simply chasing highs. Cannabis is certainly a drug with a diverse and highly varied user base, with many users having non overlapping reasons for wanting to smoke it. 

What’s really interesting and a little more surprising is that studies and reviews of the situation also report an “increase in use among Canadians older than 25” which isn’t due solely to medicinal reasons. These same reviews also report “…results for youth are mixed, with the majority of studies showing no pronounced increase. Notably, the trend of a decrease in adolescents’ cannabis use seen pre-legalisation may have reversed.” This is interesting and gives a strong indication that different age groups have different motivations for wanting to take cannabis in the first place. Something which makes a lot more sense when you think about how cases of chronic pain will rise precipitously with age. 

There’s also quite a few grey areas and unknowns that are harder to fully assess, but that doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on them and think about simpler issues. A number of critics point to the mental health issues which arise with chronic cannabis use, chiefly anxiety and in extreme cases, schizophrenia. While we don’t want to make judgements about what you do in the comfort of your own home, the science does support these cases and they are very real.  

Here’s an extract from a recent review which puts this nicely: “On the other hand, recreational marijuana legalisation could lead to overuse and thus might negatively impact mental wellbeing. As several studies show, these policies lead to increased marijuana use, therefore, it is possible that they have both direct and indirect effects on mental health.”

You may want to do your own background research to decide where the balance lies with reference to your own individual circumstances and usage. But if you want to get to the heart of what really matters, focus on the health and wellness benefits at the same time because cannabis is so much more than a substance that gets you high and risks your mental health as a result. 

Initial impacts have been overwhelmingly positive

It will be some time before the true mental health impact of legal cannabis can be accurately assessed, not least of all because of the number of competing factors at play. Firstly, we have the issue that not all sources and strains of cannabis were created equal. While there are many premium growers who are highly professional and focused on the purity and efficacy of their products, there is still plenty of low-grade street cannabis on the market. Figuring out who smoked what and when is a difficult task when you want to create a society-wide study on the impact of a relatively recent law change. Especially when you consider that different strains and growers will charge different amounts of money and be located in different parts of the country. 

Socio-economic factors come into play in a way that complicates the interpretation of any statistics on mental health. A poor inner city user who habitually smokes cannabis as a means of getting by in life will likely be exposed to a far poorer grade of cannabis than someone on the other side of the country who holds a professional position and can afford a premium product from a licensed grower. Then you need to feed in at what age these two smokers will have likely started using, as well as how long it will take to gather statistics that are accurate from these two very different communities and social groups. And finally, we need to factor in other dietary and economic factors, like living conditions and working arrangements, that will all impact a smoker’s ability to detox cannabis after smoking. 

Something else which is well worth considering is how cannabis legalisation impacts different racial groups, particularly in the US which has a history of racialised drug arrests. These are factors that are often hard to capture with a simple set of statistics, and they’re also factors which may well have generational consequences. 

America’s now notorious three strikes rule to drug offences that came in under Bill Clinton’s administration has led to thousands of mainly black Americans losing their liberty. That these policies disproportionally hit African American young men is beyond doubt, but what of the communities and families who were left behind on the outside?

In a generation’s time will we see a levelling of the playing field in economic and social mobility terms in the US because fewer young men from typically disadvantaged neighbourhoods are getting locked up? Will these then reveal that the current outlook on the impact of legalisation was merely a starting point, with the final outcome more than three decades away?

Only time will tell with complex and multi-factored issues like this, but it will certainly be interesting to find out more. What we can be sure of is that with fewer people being criminalised for what they put into their body, there will be a greater degree of choice and personal autonomy. 

These are two things that we would personally welcome here in the UK as we believe everyone has the right to determine their own approach to health and wellness. And if you don’t want to run the risk of falling foul of the law in the meantime, there’s always our CBD range that’s available with the click of a button! 

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