Issue #26  August 2023

[This is a modified and updated excerpt from “Buzz Kill: The Corporatization of Cannabis”.]

A classic stereotype of drug users is that they use drugs as an escape from the stresses and hardships of life. Entertainers Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits have all satirized this notion. Williams is probably the most often cited with his quip:

“Reality is just a crutch for people who can’t handle drugs.”

Why do people begin to use drugs recreationally? Short explanations include the seeking of peer acceptance, novel experience, pleasure, declaration of maturity, satisfaction of curiosity, relief from boredom, and yes, relief from the stresses of life too. And it can be a combination of any of the above. It’s not a question with a simple answer.

That is all I feel I need to say in this issue about why people start to use a drug recreationally. If you are looking for a deeper dive on the topic, there is no shortage of information available elsewhere. Just don’t expect everyone, even the experts, to fully agree.

What I will do in this issue is present some data on how many Canadians have decided to try various drug types. I will also provide some commentary on why some people may decide to continue to use a drug beyond an initial experience.

As in the previous issue of this newsletter, which dealt with prevalence of drug use (What Are the Most Popular Drugs in Canada?), I will draw primarily from two general population surveys of drug use: The Canadian Alcohol and Drugs Survey (CADS) and The Canadian Tobacco and Nicotine Survey (CTANS). As of August 2023, the most recent data available from CADS were collected in 2019. CTANS data for 2020 are now available, but I will use the 2019 CTANS data to make it more comparable to CADS. Both surveys provide data on non-institutionalized Canadians age 15+.

CADS provides the percentage of Canadians that have ever used various drug types during their lifetime, which also tells us the percentage who have started using each drug. (CADS no longer includes tobacco products – that responsibility has been transferred to CTANS.) CADS tells us that 87.0% of Canadians have tried alcohol during their lifetime and 41.7% have tried cannabis. Given some uncertainties in separating tobacco smokers and vapers in CTANS, we can derive only an approximation for tobacco initiation of 42%. So, as is the case with many drug use indicators, alcohol continues to reign supreme. In the case of ever-use, it is followed distantly by tobacco and more recently by cannabis as well. Other drug types form a distant third tier: hallucinogens (11.8%), cocaine/crack (8.5%), ecstasy (6.6%), methamphetamine/amphetamine (3.2%), and heroin (0.5%).

CADS also provides us with the average age for initiation of use for cannabis (nineteen) and alcohol (seventeen). We must go to a report from The School of Public Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo to get an average for initiation of tobacco use (sixteen). If there is such a thing as a gateway drug, might it be nicotine?

In the earliest stage of someone’s drug use, social acceptance appears to be a powerful reinforcer even more so than pleasure. Many people who remember their first experience smoking a cigarette at an early age are unlikely to forget the memory of a burning, unpleasant taste in the mouth and throat, a disorienting light-headedness, and the discomfort of nausea. The unpleasant sensations associated with smoking might also apply to a first time of cannabis use. An over-indulgence in the first use of alcohol to the point of vomiting can also be quite memorable – also not in a good way. We might think of these initial experiences, metaphorically, as the evolutionary wisdom of our bodies trying to impart a warning – which many novice users, especially young ones, choose to ignore.

Where is the sensorial pleasure and recreational exhilaration in nausea and vomiting? Why would anyone experiencing such odious initial experiences want to do it again? The value lies largely within the social cache of achieving acceptance among a group of peers – a rite of passage perhaps. For many young people, this milieu is one that places a premium on rebellion from adult rules while providing an easy proxy for transitional adult-like behaviour. To achieve that social cache, they are even willing to feel physically terrible for a while. Those who do not attach so much importance to social cache, may use a drug only once or a few times and lose interest.

So how many brave or foolish souls soldiered on despite the initial unpleasant experiences? Based on the prevalence data presented in the previous issue of this newsletter – quite a few. This group includes people who go beyond initial experimentation with a recreational drug and continue to use it, even if only occasionally.

The continued experience of pleasure coupled with the security of belonging to a group can be powerful reinforcers for drug use. If the drug experiences continue to be accordingly rewarding, the person will continue to use the drug, at least occasionally.

A question for Cannabis Legalization: Most cannabis users have traditionally inhaled smoke to get high, and this remains the case. Will legal edible cannabis products make it more likely for first-time users to continue using cannabis given that they no longer must endure and adapt to the initial unpleasant experience of combustion and inhalation? My guess is that the cannabis industry is counting on it.

Mike DeVillaer
Hamilton Ontario Canada
August 23 2023