Fun With Numbers: Illicit Substances Edition 1

(Disclaimer: CAMH has provided data for this piece, but their representative would like me to point out that that is the sum total of their contribution. Opinions expressed are mine and should not be taken to reflect on CAMH.)

Last month, as I was sitting here writing book proposals, the property management company that owns my building slipped a note under my door. Apparently, we here on the seventh floor of the building have been responsible for complaints about what the note comically described as “illegal aromas.” In a fairly sarcastic phone call in which I attempted to clarify what that might mean, it became clear that someone had taken offense to the fug of pot smoke that creeps out into the hallway at all hours of the day from what seems to be most of the apartments on the floor.

I’m not exactly against the use of marijuana. I think that legitimate prescription for medical purposes is a good thing. I harbor suspicion that the stronger strains that exist today probably tend to trigger latent mental health conditions, especially in young people. I don’t smoke pot myself, but I did a handful of times in university. I tended to experience paranoia (probably a bad idea to watch Dawn of the Dead for the first time before smoking pot), but I know a number of people who seem to enjoy it. As someone who drinks a lot of beer, it would be hypocritical to harsh someone else’s mellow.

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. My mother is a family practitioner and at some point in the last decade she changed one of her diagnostic questions. She no longer asks people whether they smoke marijuana. She asks them how much marijuana they smoke. It’s a better question. Instead of being perceived as stigmatizing or puritanical, it’s more likely to result in accurate data. Accurate data is better for the patient’s care.

Pot has gained a certain amount of societal acceptance and I’m interested in how that effects what I do. That is to say that I don’t have an agenda, but I do like accurate data. I’ll be pulling correlative information from various places and I don’t believe that I have quite enough to establish causation. I think that this is a discussion worth having even if it’s not definitive.

When people write about craft beer, they tend to eschew the reason people drink it: It contains alcohol. They talk about flavour and local production and economic benefit. It’s infrequent you see someone talk about beer purely as a recreational substance without being jokey, but that’s what we’re interested in here. The reason that we’re interested is that there’s a lot of data that suggests people use beer and marijuana interchangeably. Behaviourally, the consumption patterns are similar.

One of the hallmarks of the modern era in brewing is the fact that the total size of the market in North America has been shrinking. Brewers tend to attribute this to bad weather during the summers, but that’s a bone they dangle in front of the media. Have we really had four bad summers in a row? No. We are also told that people are switching from beer to wine. I think that’s nonsensical as well, given that wine is not situationally interchangeable with beer. I think beer is losing market share to pot.

Consider the following: CAMH’s 2013 E-Monitor states that past year use of cannabis has increased from 8.1% of the population in 1977 to approximately 14.1% of the population in 2013. In terms of the adult (18+) population, 42.6% has tried cannabis at some point in their lifetime. I would bet (and this is not CAMH data) that if you included teenagers, you’re probably looking at something like 48-50% of the population on that lifetime stat.

Beer drinking, on the other hand, has been in sharp decline since the late 1970’s in North America. Coincidental to the CAMH information, we have the stat that Canadians consumed 115.2 litres of beer per capita in 1976. Currently, we’re down to just over half of that at 63.35 litres of beer per capita. Partially, that decline has to do with the changing taste of the consumer, the explosion of craft products and the changing demography of the country.

Let’s take a historical low point from the 1990’s in order to prove a point: In 1995-1996, a particularly bad year for beer sales, we dwindled to 66.5 litres per capita. At an estimated population of 29, 671,900 that should equate to 19,731, 813.5 HL of beer. Currently, the population is something like 35,726,535 which equates to 22,632,760 HL. That seems like growth, but you’ve got to remember that if consumption had remained stable at 1996 levels, you’re looking at an extra 1.125 million HL: Approximately the 2014 production of breweries under 100,000 HL in Ontario and Quebec combined.

Why the shift? Well, the makeup of the population is changing. Canada’s population grows about 250,000 per year purely through immigration and many immigrants come from cultures where drinking beer in quantity is not really a thing. That’s not a moral failing on their part, by the way. It’s just factual. If drinking beer were a particularly Canadian trait, then the Czechs would be the most patriotic Canadians in the world. If you come to Canada and your religion forbids alcohol or beer simply isn’t as relevant to your culture as it is amongst groups with European heritage that fact is going to bring the average down a little.

There’s a larger economic argument to be made, however, and it’s one of the most noticeable trends from the 2015 Beer Canada statistics released this week. The Consumer Price Index for beer based on the 2002 average price has increased dramatically more than wine and spirits. Wine, on average, has been pretty steady from 86% in 1994 to about 104% in 2014 or about 18%. Spirits, on average, have increased in price at a faster rate 94% in 1994 to about 114% in 2014 or about 20%. Beer has gone up from 80% in 1994 to 117% in 2014. That’s a 37% price increase in twenty years for a product with a substitutable commodity equivalent whose price is decided on the black market.

That’s not even the worst of it. I want you to think about the fact that “buck a beer” was discontinued in Ontario in 2008. Brewers lobbied the government to increase the minimum pricing in the province so that discount brands could no longer be sold at 24 dollars a case. Approximately six years ago, the cheapest beer on the market cost $24.00 dollars. Today it’ll set you back $32.95. That’s a 37% price increase in six years. During that period, beer sales in Canada dropped off by 3.4%, a number which vastly outstrips population growth during the same period.

There’s a study in the Journal of Law and Economics from 2013 that suggests that in an economy where medical marijuana is legalized, there’s a correlative drop in beer sales by 5%. In Ontario, we have medical marijuana and even before that there was an attitude of decriminalization towards pot. Let’s think about that for a minute.

CAMH’s E-Monitor statistics say that past year use of marijuana by people in the demographic 18-29 has increased from 18.3% in 1996 to 40.4% in 2014. This is a period of time referred to by large brewers as the “prime drinking years.” That makes a significant amount of economic sense when you consider the 37% average increase in price over 20 years and the 37% increase in the price of discount beer in the last 6 years.

This is not really a good article to plug a product in, but I'll take the trouble to remind you that Old Style Pilsner is objectively the best beer in the discount category. If you're going to drink cheap beer, this is probably the one you want.

This is not really a good article to plug a product in, but I’ll take the trouble to remind you that Old Style Pilsner is objectively the best beer in the discount category. If you’re going to drink cheap beer, this is probably the one you want.

(Further disclaimer: I have never bought weed and wouldn’t really know how to go about doing so. I had to google the following figures. I felt like the guys in Office Space trying to google “Money Laundering.”)

Apparently an ounce of average quality pot in Ontario costs 200 dollars. There’s a convenient price index at That’s 28 grams. This means that, even according to the RCMP’s 2009 price index, which is probably slightly inflated, the price has not gone up on pot during a period where the price of discount beer brands has increased 37%.

The median total income for a single person in Canada has increased from $28,840 in 2009 to $32,020 in 2013. That’s about a ten percent increase. At an income level most likely to buy discount goods, brewers have massively outstripped the wealth of their target demographic. CAMH’s data suggests that the economic group most likely to have smoked marijuana during the last year is that with a household income less than $30,000.

My contention essentially is that beer, a product that is meant to be a blue collar luxury is now even its cheapest and ugliest form priced so highly that people seem to be switching to an untaxed black market commodity. Craft Beer goes from strength to strength, but because it has flavour and is a bit middle class, it’s not the commodity we’re talking about here. It appeals to a different demographic.

What I’m seeing here is something that could become a vicious cycle. Brewers sell less beer and therefore put the price up to shore up their profits and people who are buying discount beer for the effect rather than the flavour switch to marijuana causing the brewers to sell less beer… etc. More importantly, there’s a rather large amount of black market pot going around that could probably be legalized and taxed and controlled for quality assurance.

Like I said at the outset, I’m not sure that I’ve displayed causation. I think the data merely hints at it. There is, I think, an obvious correlation and I think it might call for additional study by someone who’s getting paid to do it.

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One thought on “Fun With Numbers: Illicit Substances Edition

  • Greg

    I for awhile I have also thought that the decline in overall beer sales has somehow been linked to various fad diets that have been popular in recent history. I mean how many people stopped, or dialed back their beer drinking when the low carb/Atkins diets were big? How many more cut back when gluten-free started being a thing? It is interesting to me that the big guys (considering their army of marketing people) started doing stuff like making Molson 67 before they started doing stuff like the Alexander Keith’s hop series beers.

    Also speaking of statistical research, did you look at whether or not sales of cheetos increased over a similar period of time?