Bruce Linton attended a posh hospital fundraiser not long ago, where he was introduced to the wife of the hospital’s president. To the seeming astonishment of her husband, she told Linton that she could hardly wait for pot to become legal so she could try it for herself.
“She doesn’t like alcohol,” said the CEO of Canopy Growth Corp, Canada’s largest cannabis producer. “But she wants to have something on a Friday night that kind of makes her mood a little Friday night.”
As Canada prepares to legalize recreational cannabis on Oct. 17, one unknown is how many new or “naïve” users will start using pot.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates the number of cannabis consumers aged 15 and over will rise from 4.6 million to 5.2 million by 2021. Meaning, by the government’s count, at least 600,000 people who don’t use cannabis intend to start after it becomes legal. A 2017 Nanos poll estimated that 1.9 million more people will use marijuana.
Whatever the number, usage is expected to increase. And it likely won’t be among the kids.
Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., saw little change in cannabis use among 12- to 17-year-olds post-legalization. In Colorado, pot use among teens has even dropped to its lowest level in a decade.
Instead, parents and grandparents are expected to be part of a new generation of the cannabis “naive” — and that’s raising some concern about the potential risks to first-time users.
Pot use among older Canadians is already increasing. People aged 45 to 64 made up 23 per cent of consumers in 2017, up from four per cent in 1975, according to Statistics Canada.
Many are turning to pot for chronic pain, neuromuscular diseases like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, and other age-related problems. There aren’t a lot of 65-year-olds who suddenly start using marijuana just for the fun of it, said Brian Kaskie, professor of health policy at the University of Iowa. However, there are others who smoked in college and university in the ‘60s and ‘70s, “who became grownups with jobs and families” and stopped partaking, and who may now feel a twinge of nostalgia for weed.
For some, it’s like hearing an old song, Linton said. “They’re going to be more open to experiencing it.”
But marijuana can be tricky to dose, it affects people differently, and while some new users experience nothing at all, others can have very unpleasant reactions.
And marijuana is stronger than it used to be. A recent study of illicit pot seized by the U.S. drug enforcement agency found levels of THC, the main psychoactive in pot, have risen over time, from about four per cent in 1995, to 12 per cent in 2014. In the 1970s, THC levels were said to be closer to one per cent, though there’s controversy over how reliable the earlier testing was.
Some popular strains can carry THC levels of more than 20 per cent.
At high doses, THC can produce anxiety attacks and psychotic-like symptoms. And pot mixed with booze (or prescription drugs) can lead to increased heart rate, blood pressure and other potentially risky side effects.
For now, legal products will be limited to dried bud, oil and gel caps, but Linton and others expect the real growth in new users will come in the second year of legalization, with edibles and liquid infusions like cannabis-laced drinks.
These products present their own problems for the cannabis naïve.
When smoked, or inhaled via vaporizer, THC enters the lungs, is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and travels to the brain. When ingested, the process is much slower. Cannabis gets digested in the stomach and metabolized by the liver, and it can take 30 to 90 minutes for THC to reach the brain.
“If they never tried it in college and they don’t know the creeper effect … they end up taking more, and that’s when they get into trouble,” Kaskie said.
The most common symptoms of pot poisoning are cannabinoid hyperemesis (nausea, vomiting, cramping), psychosis and chest pain. Colorado experienced a jump in emergency visits with “possible marijuana exposures” in the first year of legalization, many involving people who overdosed on edibles, and the majority of them inexperienced out-of-state tourists.
A study published last year by Haskie and his colleagues on the increased use of pot among older Americans found most people over 50 who use cannabis are healthy and white. Men are more likely to use than women, most users used less than once every 10 days and a quarter used less than five times during the past year. Most (more than nine out of 10) reported having “no emotional or functional problems.”
Still, experts say new users could benefit from some education. Dr. Benedikt Fischer, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, led a panel of experts that recently developed practical advice for recreational pot users to minimize risks of harm.
Marijuana users should: choose a product with low THC content; not smoke pot (it is likely the most hazardous method of use); avoid “deep inhalation” or breath holding, because it increases the intake of toxic material into the lungs; avoid marijuana altogether if under 16, pregnant or at risk for mental health problems; not drive (or operate other machinery) for at least six hours after using; and use occasionally, on weekends, or one day a week at most.
“As with any risky behavior, the safest way to reduce risks is to avoid the behavior altogether,” the authors wrote.