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Marijuana use climbs higher after becoming legal in Canada, survey finds

For hundreds of thousands of Canadians, apparently all it took to try marijuana for the first time was the nation's permission.

Almost double the number of people reported using cannabis products for the first time in the first three months of this year compared with the same period last year, from 327,000 to 646,000, according to a survey by the Canadian government.

Recreational marijuana became legal in Canada in October.

In all, just over 5.3 million Canadians over the age of 15 used cannabis, according to the survey, some 1.2 million more than in 2018.

"What really stood out to me was the first-time use," said Sally Yageric, director of community-based programs at the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. "A lot of people don't do things because it's against the law. Now it's OK [in Canada]. The people who have been waiting for that, they're saying: 'Heck, I want to try it.' "

With a population of 37 million, the survey indicates that 14% of Canadians used pot between January and March 2019.

The "National Cannabis Survey, first quarter 2019," released May 2, marks the first study to look at recreational marijuana use entirely in the post-legalization period. Medical marijuana has been legal in Canada since 2001.

The survey indicates that legalization of cannabis – which includes marijuana, hashish, hash oil and other products made with cannabis – has led to a marked increase in the use of cannabis.

Among the survey's key findings:

  • About a quarter-million more young people between the ages of 15 and 24 reported using cannabis in 2019.
  • Half of new cannabis users in 2019 were over 45 years old. In 2018, about a third of new users were over 45.
  • The rate of males using cannabis increased from 16% to 22% while the rate for females – 13% – remained the same.
  • More Canadian cannabis users reported obtaining it from a legal source, up to 2.5 million this year compared with 954,000 during the year-ago period, and slightly fewer report getting it from illegal sources, down to 2 million from 2.1 million.
  • Just under half of Canadians think you should wait at least three hours before driving after using cannabis while about 15% of cannabis users who have driver's licenses said they drove within two hours of consuming cannabis.
  • A little over half a million Canadian workers who described themselves as current cannabis users said they used cannabis before or during work.

Groups opposed to legalizing the recreational use of cannabis in New York say the survey's findings should be seen as a warning sign.

Luke D. Niforatos of Smart Approaches to Marijuana called the data out of Canada "very concerning."

"When we legalize a drug, it normalizes it. It commercializes it. It makes it totally kind of a part of society," said Niforatos, chief of staff and senior policy adviser for the organization, which opposes legalizing recreational use.

Earlier this year, New York State appeared to be on the verge of legalizing recreational use of cannabis, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature saying they wanted to make it happen as part of the budget process. But with debate over details ranging from how the tax revenue would be divvied up and who would get licenses to get into the industry, legalization was left off the budget negotiation table.

There's a renewed push to pass a legalization bill by the end of the legislative session on June 19.

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