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Drugs

The 5 Biggest Marijuana-Consuming Countries in the Western Hemisphere

U.S.A.! U.S.A.! We're No. 1! Or at least tied, anyway.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Couperfield

If you go by United Nation figures, Icelanders consume the most cannabis as a percentage of the national population. However, if you take a closer look at the numbers, that doesn’t mean much.

More than 18% of the Icelandic population consumed cannabis throughout the year in 2012, topping the U.S.’s reported 15.4% during 2013, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The U.N. figures are largely self-reported and the years the data were collected vary by country.

When the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released survey data in 2014 claiming that Iceland had the highest rate of marijuana smoking, news outlets around the world ran with the surprising story, much to Iceland's dismay. More than 18% of Icelanders reported toking up within the past year, higher even than the U.S., which came in at 15.3%.

But that data doesn't accurately reflect how much pot is being smoked where, nor does it illuminate where public health impacts from heavy marijuana use might occur. To get a better idea, it is necessary to measure not past year or even past month use, but daily or near daily use.

“Measuring past-year users doesn’t show us anything because so many people use very rarely, so they don’t factor into demand and they don’t factor into the public health harms,” drug policy analyst and Carnegie Mellon University professor Jonathan Caulkins told MarketWatch.

People who smoke daily or near daily are responsible for the bulk of consumption, he said.

“A little over half of cannabis use in the U.S. is consumed by people who spend more than half of their [total] waking hours under the influence,” he explained.

According to data from the National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health in the U.S. and date from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction across the pond, when it comes to past month or near daily use, Iceland doesn't make the cut.

The measures aren't perfect: The U.S. data is from 2014 and the data for European countries comes from different years, but Europe overall has seen relatively stable marijuana use numbers for so far this century, so it is probably reasonably accurate. Daily use data from other regions of the world, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where annual use rates are high, are not available.

But given the available data, when it comes to past month and near daily use, here are the top five countries:

Country                     Past Month Use      Daily or Near Daily Use

United States                        7.6%                           2.6%

Spain                                     7.6%                           2.6%

Italy                                         6.9%                           1.7%

France                                   4.8%                           1.5%

Netherlands                          3.3%                           0.8%

It's interesting to note the lack of correlation between marijuana policy and marijuana use rates. In the U.S., recreational pot is still illegal in 46 states and medical marijuana is still illegal in half the states, yet the U.S. ties for the highest rates with Spain, where it is decriminalized nationwide.

Pot is still illegal in both Italy and France, yet they crack the top five pot-smoking countries regardless, and they both beat the Netherlands, where marijuana has been available in cannabis coffee shops since the 1980s.

Sorry, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, and other pot hotbeds. We'll check back in when we have better data. 

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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