More spent on alcohol, cannabis when the pandemic began, research shows

Alcohol and cannabis sales in Canada saw a notable increase during the COVID-19 pandemic, new research has found — signalling a possible “early warning” of the long-term impacts of increased substance use.

The findings, gathered by the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research (PBCAR) of McMaster University, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and the Homewood Research Institute in Guelph, Ont., show that since March 2020, monthly alcohol sales rose by an average of 5.5 per cent over expected sales, while sales of cannabis experienced a much steeper increase of close to 25 per cent.

The researchers used information from Statistics Canada to compare 16 months of alcohol and cannabis sales before and after the pandemic began — namely the 16 months before March 2020 and following through to June 2021.

Canadians bought $1.86 billion more in alcohol than expected based on pre-pandemic trends. Cannabis sales, meanwhile, were $811 million higher than predictions.

In March 2020, when lockdown-like measures were first introduced, sales of alcohol and cannabis surged by approximately 15 per cent over predictions, the research found.

The research was published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Network Open.

“These results offer one of the first national perspectives on changes in alcohol and cannabis use during the pandemic,” said James MacKillop, director of the PBCAR and co-author of the research, in a news release.

“These sales data give us an opportunity to quantify the pandemic’s impacts on two of the most commonly used substances for the country as a whole.”

MacKillop stressed that increased sales alone cannot directly conclude clinical significance or effects on public health, but may serve as an “early warning system” for more long-term impacts linked to increased substance use.

“These sales figures give us clues into potential changes in behavioural patterns and can inform planning to address mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

The researchers say the spike parallels other consumer stockpiling of various goods as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact North America more broadly.

Alcohol sales returned to more typical levels after March 2020, but remained elevated overall. This is compared to weed sales, which continued to outpace expected levels more dramatically over the following 16 months.

 

The researchers note that the difference between increased alcohol and cannabis sales are similar to a separate study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on self-reported pandemic-induced changes in cannabis use by Canadians.

Further complicating the findings, however, is that pandemic cannabis sales follow the first 16 months after legalization.

MacKillop says that while the predictions accounted for a rapidly expanding legal market, the pandemic may have shifted cannabis consumers from illegal sales to legal, online purchasing. This, he says, contributed to the rise in legal sales seen in March 2020 compared to the more modest rise in alcohol sales.

“It’s unclear whether similar patterns exist outside of Canada, but the findings indicate the value of sales data as a strategy to characterize the impacts of COVID-19 on substance use,” said Jean Costello, director of evaluation at the Homewood Research Institute and a co-author of the research.

“Although the changing landscape following cannabis legalization is a critical consideration, the availability of marijuana for sales and data at all is a boon for researchers evaluating the pandemic’s impacts.”

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