Guess Which Country the UN Says Is the World Leader at Smoking Marijuana

A pipsqueak nation leads the world in per capita smoking, according to a UN report.

Photo Credit: Atomazul / Shutterstock.com

The people of Iceland are the happiest on Earth, according to an academic study reported by the Guardian in 2006. The UN’s latest Human Development Index ranking showed Iceland topping the charts as far as its economic and social issues go (wealth, healthcare, and education). Last month Iceland won another top world ranking: most pot smoked per capita.

The recent United Nations 2014 World Drug Report, which broke down pot use by nation, found that 18 percent of Iceland’s population (meaning 55,000 out of 320,000 people) lit up in 2012 (the year for which the data was collected). That’s more than the average in stereotypically pot-friendly Jamaica; it’s more than Amsterdam’s home country, the Netherlands; and it’s more than the US. (The UN report found 15% pot use in the US.)  

In past reports New Zealand topped the list for most cannabis use per capita, closely followed by Canada and the US, as Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws), notes.

"[Those countries] historically and consistently possessed highest per capita levels of cannabis use," Armentano said. "I can’t recall Iceland even being near the top of the list. So this is a new occurrence, likely also a bit of an anomaly, and may be based somewhat on the relatively small sample size (population size) of the nation."

So, why is weed is so popular in the small Nordic nation that outlaws the herb and has an Arctic climate that is unfriendly to outdoor cannabis crops?

Aron (a pseudonym), a 25-year-old Icelander with close connections to several growers and dealers and a significant history smoking and buying Icelandic pot (he started at 16), says its popularity isn’t as random as it might seem. Inexpensive geothermal and hydro-powered energy (which together account for almost all of the nation’s electricity needs), clean water and air and a relatively lax law enforcement attitude all contribute to the accessibility of the drug in Iceland.

“Everyone knows at least one guy in their extended circle of friends that can get weed,” he said via Skype chat. “The reason for weed being everywhere is that Icelandic drug ‘lords,’ and people in general that want to make some money, have found out that there is much profit in weed.”

He added that he has sold weed in the past, when short on cash.

Another hypothesis is that a significant portion of Aron's generation were left unemployed and broke due to the financial crisis between 2008 and 2010, when many were exiting high school and college. Weed became both a distracting pastime and a potential money-making opportunity.

“Add financial despair to having nothing to do and mix it with an abundance of weed,” he said.

Iceland has hundreds of indoor grow operations, usually functioning inside of “two-bedroom apartments where one room is used for 2-3 hps lamps and produces around 1kg (2.2 pounds) every three months or so,” Aron said.

These grows make for a hefty profit margin.

“If one were to manage to get through the first harvest with a limited profit margin, the next ones after that you are going to spend up to 600 thousand ISK in expenses but see a income of around 2 million ISK.”

If a cannabis grower gets busted, the penalty is much less harsh than in the States. For the most part, growers will receive a fine or a suspended jail sentence, and Aron says nobody spends time in prison unless they are a serious repeat offender or the operation is much larger than your average two bedroom.

He says he was once arrested for possession, but no handcuffs were involved and the authorities just asked him standardized questions at the station, like “Where did it come from?” and “Who sold it to you?” Then they charged him a fine equivalent to about $175 US and sent him on his way.

“I actually answered ‘Where did you get it from?’ with ‘It fell of a truck,’” he said.

According to the cannabis travel website WeBeHigh.org, Iceland rates 3 out of 5 on the "Smoking tolerance scale" (1 meaning marijuana smoking is very illegal, and 5 meaning it's legal, or might as well be).

"Marijuana is not very public," the website states. "You will not see a guy light up a joint on the corner. But if you start a conversation with someone of the younger generation in a bar (20-25) and later in the conversation ask him how he feels about marijuana or if we have many smokers in [I]celand or a large drug problem, since you started the conversation the person is more comfortable continuing the conversation and you’ve hit paydirt. If the person dismisses the conversation drop it and move on to the next person and our latest info says that all transaction is via mobile phone. [sic] Or try hooking up with an Icelandic stoner on Facebook before visiting!"

Aron says despite the popularity of the herb, Iceland’s media and general public attitude about pot is still riddled with stigma and unrealistic fear-mongering, and that there hasn't been much outcry in the name of medical marijuana like there is in the States.

“The general public still looks at weed the same way they did in the old days,” he said.

The Reykjavik Grapevine reported on a single Icelander who came out for using marijuana for medical purposes in 2011—an incident that appears to have been a bit of an oddity.

“There is a lot of anti-pot propaganda in the media.… The ones that don't smoke or aren’t involved in drugs in general look at pot as some … narcotic.… The older crowd still have that image of hashish smokers, that they are only two steps away from being intravenous drug users.”

Aron thinks the Internet has had a big influence on the popularity and availability of pot in Iceland in recent years and says it is far more popular among the younger generation than the older.

“The [Icelanders] who smoke pot are usually the ones that get their ‘news’ and other input from the Internet,” he said. “There was a time where people didn't have access to the Internet and just didn't think about growing weed, so it got smuggled, just like blow and speed.”

Once the Internet came into play, the younger generation was able to read up on pot and learn how to grow it, he says.

“Since people started to realize that growing themselves, instead of smuggling, is much less risky, we have seen a drastic spike in marijuana production here.”

According to the Grapevine, just under 36% of Icelanders have tried marijuana or other cannabis products, and a 2013 poll by the Directorate of Health showed increasing support for legalization. 

"On the question of legalisation, public attitudes are changing," the Grapevine reported. It continued:

"In 2003, 87.2% of Icelanders were against legalisation, while 9.3% were in favour. Today, 11.3% say they support legalisation while 78% are against it. At the same time, today as in 2003, over 90% of Icelanders consider it unlikely that they would try cannabis products if they were legal.

Former Supreme Court justice Jón Steinar Gunnlaugsson recently told radio show Harmageddon that he believes drug laws are not working, and that authorities ought to consider legalisation."

According to the Washington Post, Iceland's president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, wants to follow in Uruguay's pioneering footsteps and legalize pot. Grimsson reportedly said, "We should legalize cannabis," during his speech at the 2013 Global Commission on Drug Policy in Zürich.

"Both Iceland and Switzerland are the world's greenest countries thanks to their energy policy and unique geographical features," Grimsson said in his speech, according to the Swiss news outlet Express-Zeitung AG. "We also benefit from highly advanced technology and educated workforce, which are pre-requisite to running and maintaining high quality argicultural facilities."

Aron would be in favor of that move.

“The current [global] model is not working and we see billions upon billions of dollars go to violent flashy criminals, instead of having that money go to the state and be used toward better healthcare, scientific research and education to name a few,” he said.

A report published in the Reykjavik Grapevine argues that the UN figure may have been based on a miscalculation:

"A report from the Directorate of Health done in 2012, from which the UN drew their conclusions, does show that the percentage of Icelanders who have tried cannabis at least once in their lives has increased – from 24.7% in 2004 to 35.9% in 2012. This 35.9% who had tried cannabis once in their lives were then asked if they had tried it at least once in the 12 months previous. Of those, 81.7% said they had not."

The Grapevine concludes that Iceland's actual pot use per capita is more like 6.6%. Even so, that lesser statistic would put Iceland in first place compared to all other Scandanavian countries.

April M. Short is a yoga teacher and writer who previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor. She currently edits part-time for AlterNet, and freelances for a number of publications nationwide.

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