Alcohol and cannabis sales across Canada rose by over $2.6B during the pandemic, study suggests

Experts commenting on the results of a new Canadian study that found alcohol and cannabis sales were well above predictions say that as the pandemic wanes, more attention will be needed on treating addictions.

More attention needed on treating addictions as pandemic wanes, experts say

Sales in Canada of alcohol increased $1.86 billion compared to the previous 16 months, according to a published study released Thursday, while cannabis sales increased $811 million. (CBC)

Sales of alcohol and cannabis in Canada overshot predictions by over $2.6 billion over the course of the pandemic, according to new research.

The research from Hamilton's McMaster University, St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton and the
Homewood Research Institute was published Thursday in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.

The team used Statistics Canada data to look at alcohol and cannabis sales from March 2020 to June 2021, then compared that information to the 16 previous months, said James MacKillop, director of McMaster's Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research.

The findings showed alcohol sales were 5.5 per cent over projected sales, which means people bought $1.86 billion more in alcohol than predicted pre-pandemic. Cannabis sales were 25 per cent more than expected, equalling an additional $811 million. 

James MacKillop, director of McMaster University's Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research, says the cannabis findings in particular are 'a canary in a coal mine.' (St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton)

MacKillop said the research suggests that as we come out of the pandemic, we should plan to deal with increased issues around substance abuse.

"We have to be careful about not going over our skis for this data," he said, "but I think it's important for planning, for resourcing."

"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."

Those in the addictions field agree.

Leslie Buckley, chief of addictions at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, says the pandemic made people more stressed and isolated — a "perfect storm for increasing substance use."

Call for more focus on addiction treatment

"People were spending a lot more time at home and being bored, having a blur of the weekdays and the weekend," Buckley said.

"We shouldn't let this go by us without thinking long and hard about the implications. I think this is an early warning signal, a red flag."

Leslie Buckley of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, says the pandemic led to more isolation, and weekdays and weekends bleeding together. (Centre for Addictions and Mental Health)

Ryan Kitchen, program manager at Wayside House of Hamilton, which operates a 24-bed addictions and 36-bed sober living home, isn't surprised by the new figures.

Wayside House's wait list is usually about three months, he said. During the pandemic, the home had to cut the number of beds to abide by pandemic protocols, and the wait grew to six months.

The pandemic impact highlights why more resources need to be put into addiction treatment, he said. Wayside House is nearly back at capacity, but it's been "a long, slow process."

Cannabis sales didn't slow down

"It's really, really important to be able to cut down on wait times and for an organization like ours to have access to a larger facility," Kitchen said. 

MacKillop said the study results offer "one of the first national perspectives on changes in alcohol and cannabis
use during the pandemic."

Sales of alcohol and cannabis surged about 15 per cent in March 2020, when people were stockpiling, he said. When that eased, though, cannabis sales still "dramatically" outpaced the year before. 

Cannabis legalization is fairly new, and that likely contributed to some of its boom, MacKillop said, adding it could also mean a worrying trend of unhealthy usage.

"Specifically for the health-care sector, I think this data is a bit of a canary in a coal mine."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?