Cannabis Legalization and COVID-19 Lockdowns Increased Cannabis Use: UN Report

By Marina Zhang
Marina Zhang
Marina Zhang
Marina Zhang is based in New York and covers health and U.S. news. Contact her at
July 5, 2022 Updated: July 5, 2022

The legalization of cannabis and the COVID-19 lockdowns are likely to have contributed to increased cannabis use, according to a United Nations report.

“Cannabis legalization appears to have accelerated the upwards trends in reported daily use of the drug,” said the UN’s World Drug Report for 2022 (pdf), released on June 27.

Places that legalized cannabis—certain states in the United States, Canada, and Uruguay—have increased its use and frequency as well as reporting greater proportions of use in adolescents (pdf).

However, according to the UN, the increase in cannabis use started long before legalization in 2007 to 2008.

Further, these places also generally show a decreased perception of cannabis harm.

Whilst “cannabis use among adolescents has not changed much,” there has been a significant increase of younger adults more frequently using high-potency products, the report said.

A previous study by Columbia University indicated that the legalization of recreational marijuana has increased its use in certain demographics.

Various U.S. states have legalized the non-medical use of cannabis, starting with Washington and Colorado in 2012. Uruguay legalized it in 2013, and Canada in 2018, along with other places, though the report focused on these three countries.

Canada and American states that legalized cannabis—such as Colorado and California—saw increased emergency room visits as a result of cannabis use, as well as increases in proportions of people with cannabis-related psychiatric disorders and suicides across all places that have legalized cannabis.

Further, “periods of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic drove increases in the use of cannabis” in 2020—the most recent data available—the report said.

Trends in Drug Use During the Pandemic

Cannabis remains one of the most widely abused drugs and is the third most popular substance after tobacco and alcohol globally. The report said around 284 million people, or 5.6 percent of the world’s population, had used a drug such as heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, or ecstasy in 2020.

Of those, 209 million used cannabis, taking up 4 percent of the global population.

Cocaine production reached a new record in 2020 and trafficking by sea is growing, the report added, with seizure and drug treatment data suggesting an expansion outside the two main markets of North America and Europe into Africa and Asia.

Opioids remain the deadliest drugs, responsible for 77 percent of the world’s drug-related deaths, the report said. Global opioid seizures set a new high in 2020 with fentanyl driving overdose deaths to a new record: the provisional estimate for 2021 is 107,622 in the United States.

Canada also reported a disturbing 95 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.