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Drug use among Ontario students at lowest level in decades

Last Updated Dec 14, 2017 at 11:29 am EDT

The number of Ontario students who are drinking, smoking and using drugs has dropped to its lowest level in decades, according to a biennial survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

But the 2017 survey released Thursday turned up a disturbing finding: almost one per cent of respondents in Grades 9 to 12 reported having taken illicit fentanyl in the previous year, raising a red flag given the opioid’s involvement in hundreds of overdose deaths across the country.

Hayley Hamilton, co-author of the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS), said declines over time in the proportion of adolescents using tobacco, alcohol and cannabis are a positive sign that public health messaging about the harms of such substances are getting through to young people.

Since the most recent peak almost 20 years ago, alcohol use among grade 7 to 12 students dropped from 66 per cent to 42.5 per cent; pot use fell from 28 per cent to 19 per cent, and smoking declined from 28.4 per cent to seven per cent. Drinking and driving went down from 14 per cent to 4.2 per cent.

“These long-term declines are very positive findings, and point to the success of efforts by parents, educators, public health and government — and the students themselves — to address substance use and the problems it can create,” Hamilton said.

“Nevertheless, we must remember that substance use among students can quickly begin to increase, as we have seen in the past, so a long-term and continued commitment to public health goals is necessary.”

For the first time in the survey’s 40-year history, researchers asked respondents about fentanyl use. Among those in Grades 9 to 12, almost one per cent said they had ingested the illicit opioid in the previous 12 months — a figure equivalent to about 5,800 students across the province.

“That’s a small proportion, but this is a very hazardous drug and these people are taking quite an extreme risk in using this drug,” said Robert Mann, CAMH senior scientist and OSDUHS co-author.

“It’s very dangerous because a very, very small amount can result in overdose or even overdose-related deaths,” he said, noting about 900 Ontarians died from drug overdoses last year, with a “substantial portion” related to fentanyl.

The study found more Ontario students reported abstaining from drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and other smoking devices.

On the other hand, non-medical use of ADHD drugs (Ritalin, Adderall, etc.) and over-the-counter cough and cold medicine (in male students) has gone up.

Pot use

Cannabis remains the most used illicit drug for grade 7 to 12 students, with 19 per cent (about 172,200 students) saying they used it in the past year. The rate is closer to 37 per cent for 12th graders.

About two-thirds (62 per cent) said they don’t plan to use pot when it’s legalized for adults next year; while eight per cent said they would. Of those who already use the drug, four per cent said they would use it more often when it’s legal.

“So I think we’re looking at a group of pretty level-headed people here, with exceptions,” said Mann. “But it doesn’t appear that legislation is going to release a pent-up demand for cannabis in this population.”


Eleven per cent of students (about 80,800) use e-cigarettes compared with seven per cent who smoke tobacco (about 63,800).

Cigarette smoking, while lower than decades ago, has been stable for the past few years.

The study found student drug use peaked in the late 1970s, followed by a gradual decline in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, a second peak in the late ‘90s, and then a gradual decline to current levels.

This year’s OSDUHS involved 11,435 participants, a representative sample of the province’s 917,000 Grade 7 to 12 students.

With files from The Canadian Press