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Recent Trends in Illicit Drug Use among Young People -- Canada

The findings of three national surveys carried out in 1981, 1982, and 1983 (1-3) by the Canadian Gallup Poll Ltd. on behalf of Health and Welfare Canada indicate an overall decline in self-reported marijuana use among Canadians aged 12-19 years (4). Statistically significant declines were found in frequency of self-reported annual, monthly, and weekly marijuana use from 1981 to 1982 and 1982 to 1983.

The results of repeated school surveys in Vancouver, Ontario, and Halifax (5-7) are generally consistent with national data. An overall decline in frequency of self-reported marijuana use from the late 1970s is indicated in all three studies. In Vancouver, the percentage of secondary-school children who reported using marijuana or hashish in the last 6 months increased between 1974 and 1978 from 34.4% to 38.2%, then decreased between 1978 and 1982 to 30.1%. Similar surveys of Ontario students found that self-reported cannabis use in the past 12 months declined from 31.7% in 1979 to 29.9% in 1981 to 23.7% in 1983. Similarly, student surveys carried out over time in Halifax suggest an increase in marijuana or hashish use (last 6 months) from 1976 to 1979 (23.8% to 43.8%) followed by a decrease from 1979 to 1983 (to 29.2%).

In contrast, repeated surveys of schoolchildren in Prince Edward Island (8) found a significant increase in self-reported marijuana or hashish use in the past 6 months from 1976 to 1983 (15.1% to 24.9%); however, it is possible that, if measurements had been made in the middle of the period, the 25% in 1983 would have represented a decrease in reported use.

More information is available on the frequency of marijuana use in the 12- to 19-year age group than the 20- to 29-year age group. Comparative data from 1978, 1980, 1981 (9-11), and 1983 (3) Gallup Poll surveys indicate that the percentage of young adults who self-reported marijuana use in the last 12 months increased from 22.8% in 1978 to 25.9% in 1981 but decreased again to 21.1 in 1983.

The school surveys (5-7) also provided the most comprehensive collection of data on the use of other illicit drugs among Canadian teenagers. In Vancouver, the percentage of students reporting having ever used hallucinogens declined from 22.1% in 1970 to 17.1% in 1982, while the percentage reporting use in the past 6 months remained relatively constant over the survey years. Nonprescription use of depressants also declined from 11.5% in 1974 to 9.3% and 7.5% for 1978 and 1982, respectively. Nonprescription use of stimulants remained stable at between 12.3% and 13.7%, and heroin use was similar to previous surveys, with approximately 2% of respondents indicating that they had ever used it. The percentage of respondents who indicated cocaine use increased from 8.6% in 1978 to 10.1% in 1982. Reported use of inhalants increased from 9.3% in 1974 to 10.8% and 19.2% in 1978 and 1982, respectively. The percentage of students reporting use of inhalants in the last 6 months increased from 4.4% in 1978 to 6.2% in 1982; use in the past 30 days also increased slightly from 2.8% to 3.7%.

The results of the Vancouver and Ontario student surveys are difficult to compare, since the Vancouver study reports on the percentage of respondents who have "ever used" a drug, while the Ontario study refers to "use in the last 12 months." The percentage of students reporting use of cocaine, hallucinogens, "speed," inhalants, and heroin at least once in the last 12 months did not vary significantly from 1981 to 1983 in Ontario; cocaine use decreased from 4.8% to 4.1%; lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) use decreased from 10.2% to 8.6%; phencyclidine (PCP) decreased from 2.5% to 2.0%; other hallucinogens increased from 4.7% to 6.0%; glue and other solvent use increased from 2.3% to 3.2%; and heroin remained constant at 1.5% in 1981 and 1.6% in 1983. Nonmedical stimulants were the only substance to increase significantly in use, from 12.1% in 1981 to 15.4% in 1983. Use of nonbarbiturates and tranquilizers in the last 12 months also increased significantly between the survey years but only among students aged 18 years and those living in northern Ontario.

Similar increases in amphetamine use have been observed in Halifax, especially among female students. In 1983, 15% of the females surveyed reported use of amphetamines in the last 6 months, an increase of 4.5% from 1979, while use for the males surveyed increased only slightly from 8% to 9.7%. Use of inhalants, barbiturates, and opiates remained stable between the survey years. Approximately 6% of respondents reported using some form of inhalant in both 1979 and 1983. Use of barbiturates occurred at between 2% and 3%, with a similar pattern for opiates. Reported use of tranquilizers in the last 6 months decreased from 9.8% in 1979 to 7.4% in 1983, while hallucinogens increased substantially for the female but not the male student sample.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: These data suggest that, with a few exceptions, there appears to have been a stabilization or even a decrease in use of drug use among young people in Canada. This may be a reflection either of changing times or, at least in part, educational and promotional efforts carried out by national, provincial, and local organizations in the late 1970s or early 1980s. However, the importance of continuing to monitor patterns of substance use by young people in Canada is apparent.

Data from surveys sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have shown similar trends in the United States. Recently released data from the High School Senior Survey, for example, show that 5% of the seniors in the class of 1984 used marijuana daily. This figure is the lowest ever recorded by the annual survey, which began in 1975, and is less than half the peak of 11% found for the class of 1978. Other measures of marijuana use also declined. Adapted from Chronic Diseases in Canada (1984;5:31-3) as reported by WJ Bradley, N Jennings, Analytical Svcs Div, Information Systems Directorate, D Jossa, I Rootman, Health Promotion Directorate, Health and Welfare Canada; National Institute on Drug Abuse, US Dept of Health and Human Svcs, Washington, DC.


  1. Canadian Gallup Poll. Gallup young omnibus study. Ottawa: Health Promotion Branch, Health and Welfare Canada, 1981.

  2. Canadian Gallup Poll. Summary of results: Gallup young omnibus survey. Ottawa: Health Promotion Directorate, Health and Welfare Canada, 1982.

  3. Canadian Gallup Poll. Study among young Canadians. Ottawa: Health Promotion Directorate, Health and Welfare Canada, 1983.

  4. Rootman I. Trends in self-reported use of marijuana among Canadian teenagers. Chron Dis Can 1984;5:8-9.

  5. Hollander M, Davis BL. Trends in adolescent alcohol and drug use in Vancouver. Vancouver: Alcohol and Drug Programs, British Columbia Ministry of Health, January 1983.

  6. Smart RG, Goodstadt MS, Adlaf EM, Sheppard MA, Chan CG. Preliminary report of alcohol and other drug use among Ontario students in 1983, and trends since 1977, Toronto: Addiction Research Foundation, 1983.

  7. Mitic W, Neumann B. Drug use among Halifax adolescents--1983. Halifax: Nova Scotia Commission on Drug Dependency, November 1983.

  8. Killorn J. Chemical use among Prince Edward Island students, 1983. Charlottetown: Alcohol and Drug Problems Institute, 1983.

  9. Rootman I. Recent trends in cannabis use in Canada. Drug and alcohol dependence 1979;4:425-34.

  10. Canadian Gallup Poll. Gallup omnibus study. Ottawa: Health Protection Branch, Health and Welfare Canada, 1980.

  11. Canadian Gallup Poll. Gallup omnibus study. Ottawa: Health Protection Branch, Health and Welfare Canada, 1981.

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