The sign on the outside of the NSLC Cannabis store on Clyde Street in Halifax in June 2021. The NSLC Logo is capital letters in blue and purple, with a yellow and green wave running over the centre. Below that, Cannabis is in black cursive text, set out from the building's surface.
The NSLC Cannabis store on Clyde Street in Halifax in June 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford

A new study suggests Canadians have overwhelmingly embraced the budding cannabis industry since its 2018 legalization, but they haven’t yet been sold on edibles.

The study, ‘Cannabis & Edibles: Comparison of Canada and USA Consumer Perspectives,’ was released on Monday by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab research associate Brian Sterling and the lab’s senior director, Sylvain Charlebois.

The survey’s goal was to understand how Canadian and US consumers perceive cannabis — including edibles — and to explore the impacts of legalization and the pandemic.

Among the report’s findings, support for legalization has increased from 49% in 2019 to 78% in this latest survey.

Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab research associate Brian Sterling. Photo: Contributed

“We had anticipated that Canadians were going to be a little more accepting and perhaps consumption would have gone up a bit, but we were really surprised at the level that it had changed,” Sterling, the report’s lead author, said in an interview.

“The clear signals are not only growing acceptance, but growing consumption. First time user numbers are up, the normalization of it, and that means people are buying it more often from legal sources.”

Since legalization, 60% of Canadians say they’ve switched to legal sources for their cannabis (up from 38% in 2019) versus 45% of Americans in jurisdictions where cannabis is legal.

The survey also found that 49% of Canadian respondents claimed to use cannabis at least once a week compared with 62% of Americans. Similarly, 60% of Americans said they purchased cannabis at least once a month versus 52% of Canadians.

“We had this great idea of what it was going to be like once we made cannabis legal here in Canada, we’re going to take over the world,” Sterling said. “And that really hasn’t happened, and now the United States is catching up really, really quickly.”

COVID-19 doesn’t seem to have much changed consumption rates in Canada. While 14% of Canadians indicated they’ve increased their cannabis intake during the pandemic, 63% said it hasn’t caused them to consume more.

Asked if they were concerned about cannabis risks to youth, 63% of Canadian survey respondents stated they were concerned versus 47% of American respondents.

In Atlantic Canada, concern about accidental ingestion of cannabis by youth was greater than in the rest of Canada. About 80% of respondents in the Atlantic region believe edibles pose a risk to youth compared to the national figure of 67%.

Regarding worries about pets accessing cannabis, 61% of Canadian were concerned versus 47% of Americans.

“In the United States the level of concern about pets and kids is substantially lower…You just kind of wonder why is it that Canadians are kind of edgy about that when they clearly aren’t edgy about cannabis generally,” Sterling said.

Social stigma

Sterling was intrigued by the responses to a question about whether towns and cities should be able to ban cannabis retail facilities within municipal boundaries. Much to his surprise, 56% were opposed to the idea and only 28% supported it, something he described as a reversal from before legalization.

In Atlantic Canada, respondents who were both cannabis consumers and non-consumers felt even more strongly that municipalities should not be allowed to ban cannabis retailers within their boundaries, with 67% indicating they opposed the idea.

“I think that is a huge indicator of how social stigma on this has shifted. People have gone from being very nervous about having it near them, particularly (since) the pandemic, to kind of like,’I’m tired of shopping online. I just want to walk in and I want to look around and I want to buy what I want to buy,’” he said.

The data also suggests 57% of Canadians are not concerned about others knowing they consume cannabis recreationally, with a similar number indicating they don’t care if their co-workers are recreational users.

A sampling of cannabis edibles. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont
A sampling of cannabis edibles. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

Cannabis edibles

When it comes to cannabis edibles, Canadian attitudes have shifted considerably. In 2017, 39% said they were uninterested in edibles. That number jumped to 60% in the latest survey.

Only 26.6% of Canadians say they’d purchase cannabis food or drinks at a restaurant now, versus almost 46% who say they would have in 2017.

“When we ask people, are you curious about trying an edible? Those numbers were very large when it wasn’t legal,” Sterling said.

“It’s kind of an interesting sociological thing when somebody says, ‘Oh, yeah, I really want to try that,’ and then you give them the opportunity to try it and they go, meh.”

Graphic from a new report by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab

High time for change

Sterling said cannabis consumption is becoming an accepted norm in Canada, and this shift in attitudes brings opportunity.

“From a consumer point of view, that level of acceptance and the loss of the social stigma around cannabis is now very real, it’s significant, and it’s accelerating. There’s momentum here,” he said.

“Investors are now getting really impatient. And the message for them with this report is, yeah, there’s an opportunity in the United States, but there’s still significant opportunity here in Canada that nobody’s really even addressing.”

Sterling said the Canadian government needs to examine many issues, including the banning of retail outlets and addressing issues around packaging and labelling of cannabis products. He described it as “not really useful,” adding that pressure needs to be put on government to change how it regulates the information and look of cannabis packaging. He also believes improvements must be made to the way cannabis is tracked and traced as it moves through the supply chain.

“Those are the kinds of things that we see government and industry are going to have to address, perhaps together,” Sterling said.

“The challenge that we have now for Public Health Canada is that they continue to treat edibles just like the regular drug…It happens to have drug in it, but it’s food. It should be treated like a food.”

His colleague and co-author Charlebois agrees. He said while he can’t see it happening any time soon, the Cannabis Act would need to change.

Dalhousie University professor Sylvain Charlebois. Photo: Dalhousie University

“I think over time, people will realize that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and alcohol has been socially normalized for many, many decades now,”Charlebois said. “I think over time that’s probably what’s going to happen.”

Charlebois also believes there’s a massive edibles market that has yet to be exploited because Canada’s cannabis market is so highly regulated.

“It’s very difficult to get edibles in Canada…We do believe that the black market for edibles is still quite strong in Canada,” Charlebois said.

“There’s not a lot of innovation, to be honest, in cannabis, there’s not a whole lot of thinking going on in regards to how to use it in edibles in particular…It’s not all that active.”

Other Canadian findings:

55% of Canadians say they now use cannabis or are considering it

About 12% say they started only after legalization (twice the 6% reported in 2019)

24% say they use cannabis mainly for recreational purposes, with 10% reporting they take it medically, and 11% for “health and wellness lifestyle reasons”

45% of cannabis consumers still typically buy dried flower, with oil/tinctures the preference for 22%. Vape cartridges are the first choice for 7% of consumers.

The study was conducted over 10 days in May 2021, with 1,047 people surveyed across Canada in both English and French. The authors state that while not perfectly random, a typical randomized survey of this size would be accurate to about 3%, 19 times out of 20.

Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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  1. I just love that “to be honest” thing. So I’m going to use it. To be perfectly honest, cannabis infused food is an accident waiting to happen unless 45 to maybe 90 minutes after ingestion, biggest thing you’ve got to do is chill at a campfire, watch a movie or go to sleep. I bet lots of people agree with me. The legal cannabis deal won’t die overnight because people don’t stock the pantry with government approved options to get high without drinking alcohol.