Grad's research identifies demand for online support for cannabis use

"We need to make sure that people who want help are able to receive help."

Rachel Harper - 19 November 2019

At the University of Alberta (UAlberta), approximately 30 per cent of young adults aged 18 to 24 use cannabis, a statistic which mirrors national trends. According to objective screening criteria, 24 per cent of these students are using cannabis problematically.

Unfortunately, only a fraction of those who meet the screening criteria for hazardous or harmful usage are seeking help or have access to specialty treatment.

Alexandra Loverock, master of science (MSc) degree graduate and doctor of philosophy (PhD) student, is trying to create ways to change that.

During her MSc program, Loverock set the groundwork for her PhD research by exploring whether university aged students who use cannabis would be interested in accessing supports and brief self-help interventions online.

"My research found that 59 per cent of participants were interested in accessing one or more online supports," explains Loverock. "We also learned that those who are using cannabis problematically are more interested in receiving help than those who are not using it problematically. This is an important finding because we need to make sure that people who want help are able to receive help."

Problematic cannabis use is measured using objective screen criteria from the Cannabis Use Disorder Identification Test - Revised (CUDIT-R). Examples of problematic cannabis use include; using cannabis in situations that are physically hazardous like driving or caring for children, failing to do what is normally expected of you due to use, or heavy and frequent (i.e. daily) use.

Under the supervision of Cameron Wild, School of Public Health professor, Loverock and the Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse (CRISM) - Prairie Node, plan to launch a website with many different components to correct misconceptions about cannabis use, assist those who use cannabis and serve as a general resource to the public.

Components on the website will include CRISM's lower-risk cannabis use guidelines that help inform people how to modify or adapt their personal cannabis usage to lower risk and harm. There will also be a listing of resources and services available for individuals to access if they wish to gain further information or assistance, like psychological or counselling services. Finally, the website will have an online screening measure based on the CUDIT-R to help individuals self-assess whether they may or may not have problems with cannabis use.

"When people use the online screening measure they will be more aware of their use and behaviours, and will be able to see how their use compares to their peers," explains Loverock. "This will allow people to become more aware, and then make decisions on whether they want to change their behaviour, access resources or seek help."

Loverock hopes the website will launch to the UAlberta community in the coming months. Her goal is to eventually make it available to Canadians of all ages who want to learn more about cannabis and assess their own usage. To her knowledge, this would be the first of its type in Canada, but she notes that the important distinction is that this website takes a public health approach. Loverock and her team are focused on reducing risk as opposed to telling people to stop using cannabis completely.

"In my mind, we don't care if you use cannabis. We just want you to be safe, reduce risk and be aware of your own behaviours," says Loverock.