While the amount of data about cannabis and its various applications has been on the rise, information about the people who use it hasn’t quite seen the same level of growth.
That’s why a local research organization is looking to Vancouverites as it conducts the first study of its kind: the Vancouver Cannabis Dispensary Users Study will find out how, where, when and why cannabis users in the Lower Mainland access the most widely-used illicit drug on the planet.
‘There’s a really big gap in the scientific literature, as in, there are very, very few studies of cannabis use conducted among the general cannabis using population,’ said M-J Milloy, the research scientist at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) behind the organization’s latest undertaking. He’s also an assistant professor at UBC, a partner in the study, and a scientist with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
Milloy added that most studies that have looked at users are quick to pathologize their use as dependent or problematic, where the BCCSU comes from the research-backed position that ‘the majority of cannabis use is not dependent, and that the harms of cannabis use are generally minor, and resolve without much intervention.’
‘There is a lot of benefit that people report about their cannabis use, both in medical and in non-medical senses, so we felt it was important to try and do a study which captured all of those things—which captures cannabis both as a source of harm, for some people, and a source of benefit for others,’ he said.
Of course, given Canada’s looming cannabis legalization, Milloy and team believe there’s no better time than now to be conducting such a study, especially because the federal government has said it wants to create drug policies that are evidence-based.
While the climate for dispensaries in other Canadian cities has proven to be very volatile, Vancouver’s grey-area cannabis market has certainly been the most open to leaving cannabis storefronts be. Milloy said the network of dispensaries and users in the city made it an ideal location to conduct such a study.
‘As with many things in the world of drugs and drug policy, we’re very fortunate to live in Vancouver where we do have a number of policy makers and other leaders who are interested in harm reduction; who are interested in regulating drugs via public health rather than via public security, and as a researcher, this is a great place to do research,’ he said.
‘People have been interested in a different way of viewing cannabis for decades in Vancouver. We’re really just taking advantage of a great opportunity.’
Having contacted dispensary owners ahead of the study’s commencement, Milloy says he’s confident many are not only interested in the health and well-being of their customers, but that they’re also committed to taking a public health approach.
Pamphlets notifying users of the study can be found in many local dispensaries, and have been on display since February.
The in-depth, anonymous, and confidential survey looks at the full spectrum of cannabis, and asks questions about recreational, medical, and problematic use, as well as a person’s behaviors, beliefs, reasons for use, perceived benefits, and experience of harms, like driving under the influence. It takes approximately 30 to 45 minutes to complete, and those who do take part are entered to win a small prize.
The team hopes to have 1,000 survey participants by September 15.
Once they’ve examined the data generated by the survey, Milloy hopes to make it available to the public in a variety of ways, namely, through the media, but also by sharing it with policy makers.
‘I think journalists have a very important role to play, and it’s been really neat to see the rise of the journalists in the U.S. who are approaching it from a really different angle than the usual way that journalists talk about drugs, which is often stigmatizing and can get caught up in hysteria,’ he said.
‘We obviously want to make this useful for policy makers, and we’re reaching out to them in Victoria and Ottawa to see what they’re interested in.’
What’s more, Milloy hopes that by sharing the data with those who have contributed to the survey, he’ll give Vancouverites who use cannabis a little chance to look in the mirror.
‘A lot of people have said this to me, and that’s that they want to talk about their cannabis use,’ he said. ‘I think it’s important to reflect communities back on themselves, so they know what’s going on. It’s important to give people education and to give them ways to reduce and avoid harm.
‘I think by trying to understand how these harms arise, we can help inform efforts to reduce them, whether through community members, medical professionals, or whoever. That really starts with evidence, and that’s what we’re trying to generate.’