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U.S. Ranks #1 in Consumption of Pot, Cocaine, Smokes

Just in time for the Olympics, the U.S. takes the gold medal in several drug use categories, according to a recent WHO report.
 
 
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According to a new study released June 30 by the World Health Organization, the U.S. leads the world and -- just in time for the Olympics -- takes the gold for the use of tobacco, pot, and cocaine, far outpacing other countries, even the Netherlands, where drug laws are far less draconian. In the U.S., more than 42% in the study admit having used marijuana, and 16% admit having used cocaine -- a cocaine-use rate four times that of New Zealand, which ranked No. 2 out of 17 countries surveyed.

For this first cross-national drug-use study, WHO researchers surveyed more than 54,000 people in the Americas (the U.S., Mexico, and Colombia), Europe (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, and Ukraine), the Middle East and Africa (Israel, Lebanon, Nigeria, and South Africa), Asia (Japan and China), and Oceania (New Zealand), using a standardized methodology. While WHO researchers determined that drug use is more prevalent in wealthier countries, researchers determined that income does not have a "static" effect on drug use. Overall, researchers found the greatest involvement with all drugs by younger people and "remarkable similarity" across the countries surveyed in the "age of onset" of use. Typically, alcohol and tobacco use begins earliest (between 16 and 19 years of age), followed by pot use (around 18), and coke (typically between 21 and 24).

While income and age may be factors determining drug use, it appears that a country's drug policies have little impact on use. "Globally, drug use is not distributed evenly and is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones." Indeed. The U.S., with its harsh user penalties, outpaced all other countries on use of pot and coke -- way beyond even the Netherlands, where legal action is not taken for pot possession for personal use. There, just 19.8% of the population has even tried marijuana, and just 1.9% of the population has tried cocaine. Only New Zealand comes close to the U.S. in the number of folks who have ever tried pot, with just under 42%. The U.S. far outpaced other countries in coke use too, with 16.2% of respondents having tried the drug; New Zealand posted a 4.3% lifetime coke-use rate. Colombia, the only coke-producing nation on the list, came in fourth (tied with Mexico) with a 4% lifetime use rate. Only in alcohol use was the U.S. tossed out of the top spot: We took sixth place, while Ukraine took gold with 97% alcohol use. Germany garnered the silver, with 95.3%, while New Zealand, otherwise -- apparently, our drug-use sister country, imagine the cultural exchange possibilities! -- took the bronze, with 94.8%.

But you'd be a fool to suggest that any correlation can be drawn between harsher drug policies and drug use (as the WHO has done), says White House Office of National Drug Control Policy flack Tom Riley. Trying to find a link between drug use and drug enforcement doesn't make sense, Riley explained to Bloomberg News. "The U.S. has high crime rates but we spend a lot on law enforcement and prison," he said. "Should we spend less? We're just a different kind of country. We have higher drug use rates, a higher crime rate, many things that go with a highly free and mobile society." Wha?

As Reefer friend Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, points out, the ONDCP actually takes an extremely opposite view any time one of the states seeks to "liberalize" its pot laws. Legalizing medi-pot, for example, invariably sends the wrong message to children, the ONDCP likes to point out, and legalization measures would certainly lead to a greater availability of drugs, it says -- as it did back in 2002, Mirken reminds us, in fighting against a Nevada ballot measure that would have made legal pot sales and possession by adults.

In the end, say the WHO researchers, it may be that affluence has more influence on drug use than do anti-drug laws. "The use of drugs seems to be a feature of more affluent countries. The [U.S.], which has been driving much of the world's drug research and drug policy agenda, stands out with higher levels of use of alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis, despite punitive illegal drug policies," reads the study. "Clearly, by itself, a punitive policy toward possession and use accounts for limited variation in nation-level rates of illegal drug use."

In other words, Riley may actually be right this time, says Mirken -- although that doesn't make things better. "For years, ONDCP has been saying that even the slightest moderation of our marijuana laws would unleash a wave of marijuana use and turn us into a nation of potheads," Mirken wrote to me in an e-mail. "But when confronted with evidence to the contrary, they now say, 'Oh, never mind.' Okay, fine. So if cracking down on marijuana doesn't actually reduce use, would someone please tell me why we arrest 830,000 people a year for it?"

Good question. Tom?

The World Health Organization's study ranked countries based on their findings of "lifetime use rate" -- in other words, the percentage of people who report ever having used each drug.

Alcohol

1) Ukraine -- 97.0%
2) Germany -- 95.3%
3) New Zealand -- 94.8%
4) Colombia -- 94.3%
5) Netherlands -- 93.3%
6) U.S. -- 91.6%

Tobacco

1) U.S. -- 73.6%
2) Lebanon -- 67.4%
3) Mexico -- 60.2%
4) Netherlands -- 58.0%

Cannabis

1) U.S. -- 42.4%
2) New Zealand -- 41.9%
3) Netherlands -- 19.8%
4) France -- 19.0%

Cocaine

1) U.S. -- 16.2%
2) New Zealand -- 4.3%
3) Spain -- 4.1%
4) Tie: Colombia and Mexico -- 4.0%

Jordan Smith is a staff writer at the Austin Chronicle.

 
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