More Canadians turning to cannabis to help deal with pandemic pressures
Increased stress, boredom, loneliness cited as reasons for using cannabis
Kacie Fann had three kids and a full-time job as a realtor when the pandemic hit last year. Like so many others, her life was turned upside-down and she found herself at a loss as to how to cope.
"I didn't know how I was going to do it," Fann said. "I started having severe anxiety attacks because I was so overwhelmed with the news and everything else."
Fann walked away from the career she had spent years building, taught herself how to trade stocks to generate some income, and turned her attention to helping her kids, including a two-year-old, navigate online school. However, despite these radical lifestyle changes meant to help reduce daily pressures, Fann says her attacks did not abate until she tried something completely new to her.
"A friend of mine told me about CBD," she said, referring to cannabidiol, a compound found in cannabis plants. "And I would say within the first week [of trying it], my nerves started to calm down and I was able to just think and come up with a plan of how I was going to do this, how I was going to manage."
At first she did worry about the stigma associated with cannabis, especially as a mom of three, but after doing her own research she says she felt comfortable with the choice. Fann adds that cannabis has made more of a difference to her stress levels and mood than anything else she's tried, including exercise and meditating.
"It has tremendously helped relieve me of my anxiety," she said.
Fann is far from alone among Canadians who are turning to cannabis in some form during the pandemic. According to a recent Statistics Canada survey that looked at changes in alcohol, drug and medication consumption habits, 20 per cent of Canadians now report using cannabis, up from 14 per cent before COVID-19.
The StatsCan report also found that the top reasons Canadians cited for using cannabis include increased stress, boredom and loneliness.
Yad Singh is the owner of Dolly's Cannabis, a dispensary in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood. He has a degree in nuclear medicine, and became interested in therapeutic uses of cannabis while looking for ways to alleviate some of the symptoms a family member was suffering as they battled terminal cancer.
These days, he says his dispensary is helping people ease some of the stress they are experiencing as a result of repeated pandemic lockdowns.
"You know, a good majority of everyone that comes here is definitely affected by COVID and how it's impacting their mood," Singh said.
"So, whether they put on a good face about it, it's still impacting them and is still tough to deal with."
Singh says he's seen a marked increase recently in the number of people coming in for the first time — people who've never tried cannabis before.
"I've noticed in the last two months new users increasingly coming to our store. I would say, from our perspective, maybe about a five to 10 per cent jump in these types of customers," Singh said.
He adds that people tell him they are trying to deal with increased fear and anxiety surrounding the pandemic, and they often come to the dispensary after trying other means to regulate their mood. Some also say they're trying to avoid turning to other substances, such as alcohol.
"I hear from people in casual conversation, they'll tell me, 'you know, you can't drink beer all the time, and I need something to kind of get through this period,'" Singh said.
Researchers at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) have been monitoring the uptick in cannabis consumption.
Researchers at CAMH note the potential health risks associated with frequent reliance on cannabis. Possible long-term effects include heightened anxiety, depression and even psychosis, especially among those with a family history of mental health issues.
CAMH is urging younger people and pregnant women to avoid using cannabis entirely, as well as warning people to wait at least six hours to drive after consuming it. It also cautions all users to exercise moderation.
"One way to reduce risk is to decrease the THC content, and decrease the amount of cannabis being consumed," Dr. Buckley said.
Despite these warnings, Singh says he is seeing people all along the spectrum of anxiety and depression who are trying cannabis.
One of his dispensary's new customers, Daniel Guedes de Andrade, is an articling student who came to Dolly's for relief for intense anxiety after several visits to the emergency room with a racing heartbeat that shook him.
"When it was really bad, I had a very fast heart rate and it felt like pressure in the chest and a shortness of breath," Guedes de Andrade said. "This pandemic has definitely increased my levels of anxiety."
Guedes de Andrade is currently being monitored by a doctor to rule out any cardiac issues, but he says at times the anxiety was so intense that it was debilitating. He was unable to focus on work or calm down enough to enjoy much of anything, he adds, but since starting to vape CBD he says that's changed.
"It has helped me a lot with managing anxiety and with enabling relaxation as well," he said. "It works in a matter of a few seconds and it's been very helpful. It's like, I'm able to be functional and excited to be doing my work."
Fann says she plans to keep using CBD oil. She was initially using the oil once a day, but adds that she now needs less of it to cope than she did when she first started using it.
"I'm pretty much down to maybe like one drop a week now, because I've gotten to a place where I've been able to manage everything that I have on my plate," Fann said.
Dr. Buckley says CAMH plans to continue studying the usage levels of people, to see if cannabis consumption goes down or stays at the same level after the pandemic.
Watch full episodes of The National on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.