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Wastewater Based Epidemiology or How The Government Knows Everything About Your ‘Drug’ Consumption By Analyzing Your Poop

Emily Robertson
cannabis, cannabis use, wastewater, wastewater treatment plant, Canada, legalization, black market, opioids, prescription, THC, metabolites, Nova Scotia, Halifax, StatCan

Europe and Canada already collect and analyze the wastewater of its citizens in order to suss out cannabis and drug usage within a population. Wastewater based epidemiology: mass surveillance or good stats?

Contrary to common Canadian stereotypes, it isn’t the West Coast that consumes the most cannabis. While British Columbia carries the reputation of being the most cannabis-positive stop in Canada, it turns out that the East Coast holds that title. In fact, in a recent survey, Vancouver came in with the least cannabis consumption out of the five major metropolitan areas in Canada! All of this information was gleaned from the poop of unsuspecting citizens using wastewater based epidemiology.

cannabis, cannabis use, StatCan, Statistic Canada, wastewater, wastewater plants, prescription drugs, national surveys, Canada, legalization, illicit cannabis, cannabis patients

Image credit: Henryk Sadura

The New Statistics Canada Survey That Looked at Canadian Poop

StatCan decided that relying on personal surveys wasn’t enough to capture the social, economic, and educational needs of its citizens anymore. They wanted to run a survey from March to August of 2018 again, but this time with accurate statistics instead of personal response. They engaged in a technology called wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) and we can’t wait to talk about it.

cannabis, cannabis use, wastewater, wastewater treatment plant, Canada, legalization, black market, opioids, prescription, THC, metabolites, Nova Scotia, Halifax, StatCan

Image credit: Wanna Thongpao

WasteWater-Based Epidemiology

Waste water reveals all the medicinal tendencies of the population it draws from. And many an athlete, caught juicing in the Olympics, can confirm that feces and urine don’t lie.  European countries have been using WBE to gather information on opioid use, psychedelics, cocaine abuse, and cannabis consumption for metropolitan regions across the continent. Apparently, it is so accurate that doses and consumptions levels can be measured by the day, rather than as a weekly quantity.

The technique is still new, which means that, according to StatCan, it’s “preliminary and experimental.” However, this wouldn’t be the first time that Nova Scotia was found to be the most 420-friendly population. A StatCan survey from 2017 that was released in April 2018 showed similar results.

cannabis, StatCan, Canada, cannabis use, wastewater, wastewater plants, opioids, prescription, Nova Scotia, Halifax, survey

Image credit: Dragan Grkic

The 2017 survey found that individuals in Nova Scotia annually consume 27.1 grams each. This is a full 6 grams of cannabis above the estimated national average. In that same study, Alberta came in at 24.6 grams per person and B.C. a paltry 24.1 grams.

The 2018 wastewater based epidemiology study looked at 15 treatment plants in Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton, Toronto, and Halifax. Halifax consumption was 1,310 micrograms per person per week in the wastewater samples.

cannabis, Nova Scotia, Halifax, cannabis use, wastewater, wastewater plant, legalization, black market, StatCan, Vancouver

Image credit: rustycanuck

How Wastewater Based Epidemiology Works

The technology gave a fairly accurate cross section of cannabis consumption within the nation. Around 8.4 million people – about a quarter of Canada’s population – were tested through the wastewater facilities.

This WBE could help StatCan figure out greater statistics for drug use. By separating out the different chemicals and compounds found in the wastewater samples, researchers can figure out which drugs are on the black market and extrapolate addiction levels within a population.

cannabis, cannabis use, wastewater, wastewater plants, StatCan, Canada, black market, THC, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Image credit: Bobkov Evgeniy

StatCan has already addressed the possibility of using this method to track illicit sales of cannabis. They can do this by measuring the volume of cannabis found in the wastewater and comparing it to the volume of legal sales in the nation. The same could easily be done for opioids.

cannabis, THC, cannabis use, Canada, Nova Scotia, Halifax, StatCan, wastewater, wastewater plant, prescription, opioids

Image credit: szalai szilveszter

There are some grumblings that this is another form of mass surveillance. But, it’s not like they can link usage of cannabis and prescription drugs back to individuals. The poop statistics, however, are important for improvement in regulation, policy, and understanding cultural shifts of the nation. What are your thoughts?

 

 

Emily Robertson

Emily Robertson has been writing freelance and contract work since 2011. She has written on a variety of topics, including travel writing of North America and the growing legalized cannabis industry across the globe. Robertson has a master’s degree in literature and gender studies, and brings this through in her writing by always trying to explore different perspectives. Born and raised in southwestern Ontario, Robertson moved to Glasgow, Scotland in 2016 to undergo her doctorate in Scottish Literature. She lives in the West End with her dog, Henley.

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