Issue #15 June 2022

In my previous dispatch, I paid tribute to Reg Smart who, in 1977, initiated surveys of drug use and drug problems among Ontario students and adults. These surveys are now into their fifth decade. In my last post I drew upon The CAMH Monitor to provide the most recent data on adults from 2020 and made comparisons to 2019 data. This provided a pre-COVID-19 and during-COVID-19 comparison. In short, drug use and problems increased during the pandemic – in some cases, substantially. (That previous post serves as a good companion piece to this one. If any new subscribers would like a copy of the previous post, let me know; I’ll be happy to send it. (Yes, I should set up a website for posting these dispatches. I’m working on it – when I get time – which isn’t very often.)
In this post, I will cover the impact of COVID-19 on students as made available in the 2021 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS).
OSHUHS has been published every other year since 1977, initially by the Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario (ARF) and then by The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Following in the pioneering footsteps of Reg Smart has been a succession of scientific leads on the survey including Drs. Ed Adlaf, Bob Mann (Bob and I went to grad school together), Jurgen Rehm, and Hayley Hamilton – all of whom provided effective scientific stewardship of OSDUHS. I also want to give a special shoutout to Angela Boak who has been the lead author and logistics manager of the survey report since 1999. Angela brought an impressive level of continuity and coherence over the years. She was also always wonderfully receptive to my inquiries – providing thoughtful and helpful answers to my questions on methodology and findings. Thank you, Angela!
The 2021 survey, occurring during COVID, was conducted under unprecedented conditions. For the 2021 OSDUHS Report was based upon 2225 students in grades 7-12 who completed the online survey at their convenience between March and June 2021. The students represented 122 schools in 31 boards of education. Thus, the methodology was different from the in-class completion of all previous surveys, and the sample size was much smaller. The authors acknowledged that the 2021 survey may not represent the Ontario student population as well as did previous surveys. The 2019 survey, for example, included 14,142 students from 263 schools in 47 school boards.
Survey participation is one of many ways in which COVID not only disrupted our lives, personal and vocational, but also disrupted our ability to comprehend the complex, changing world around us. Our understanding of the impact of cannabis legalization in Canada has also been impacted by COVID. Since legalization, there have been changes in cannabis use and problems, but we cannot be certain about the extent to which the changes are attributable to legalization or to COVID. It may be years before we are able to understand. This may also be the case for the impact of COVID on student drug use and well-being. But let’s see what information we have at this point.
COVID appears to have had a dramatic impact upon a significant number of students as demonstrated by their self-reports in OSDUHS.
During the time of COVID:
• 26% of students reported that it was very/extremely difficult to learn online from home
• 39% reported that their mental health had been “very much” or “extremely” affected
• 24% reported that their relationship with their parents had become a bit, or a lot, worse
• 59% reported feeling depressed about the future
With the disruptive and bleak prospects from the COVID experience, we might have expected more students to be inclined to use drugs and perhaps more often. However, their self-reports provide no indication that they did so, when we look at statistically significant changes from the pre-COVID data. In fact, there were mostly significant decreases in drug use. Past-year alcohol use declined from a pre-pandemic 42% of students to 32%, as did binge drinking (5+ drinks per occasion) from 15% to 8%. As we often see in data sets on drug use and related harm, the two go in the same direction. Hazardous/harmful drinking in the previous month among students in grades 9-12, also decreased – from pre-pandemic 14% of students to 5%. Past year use of e-cigarettes also decreased from 23% of students to 15%. Non-medical use of cough or cold medicine also decreased from 8% of students to 4%. Only one drug type showed an increase in prevalence of use during the pandemic – non-medical use of prescriptions – which increased from past year use by 11% of students to 13%. There were no significant changes in past year use of other drug types such as cannabis and opiates.
While it appears that the stresses of COVID did not induce more students to seek solace in recreational drug use, it appears that they may have sought such consolation through electronic appetites of pleasure such as playing video games and online gambling. The percentage of students reporting 5+ hours of video game playing per day increased from 11% to 24%. The percentage of students reporting having spent money on online gambling also increased from 4% to 15%. As we might expect, the percentage of students reporting a video gaming problem increased from 14% to 20%.
Anyone concerned about students’ capacity to cope with the disruptive effects of COVID is unlikely to take solace in the migration to electronic over pharmacological indulgences. Given the isolating effects of the worst period of covid, as we all experienced it, electronic gaming provided a convenient pastime – perhaps too convenient. Electronic preoccupations can be just as disruptive of lives, relationships, and achievements, as can their pharmacological counterparts. This is a development well worth ongoing surveillance which OSDUHS will provide with its next survey. It should be in the field in 2023 and a report expected in 2024.
I’ll close this post with a reminder that you can see my most recent chapter “Cannabis Legalization: Déjà Vu All Over Again?” in The High North: Cannabis in Canada which has now been released by UBC Press. If you invite me, I will be happy to talk to your organization about it.
Please forward this dispatch to any colleagues or students who you think might enjoy it. If they send me an email, I will be happy to add them to the distribution list. To unsubscribe from future mailings, respond to this email with ‘unsubscribe.’

Mike DeVillaer
Hamilton Ontario Canada
June 10 2022.