July 1, 2008

America Rules...At Smoking Drugs

An article published in PLoS Medicine this week reported that the U.S. has the highest level of illegal cocaine and cannabis use in the world. The study, conducted through the WHO World Mental Health Surveys, surveyed participants in seventeen different countries around the world from each continent (excluding Australia). 
Alcohol and tobacco were widely used in all countries, but cannabis and cocaine use showed a large variability between countries.

New Zealand and the U.S. are far outliers in cannabis use, while the U.S. cocaine use far surpassed that of any other country, even Colombia, the only cocaine producing country on the list.

I usually love to use these studies to laugh at how ineffective the U.S. drug policy is, but this study does not reflect that. The survey determined what percentage of people had used any of the drugs listed at any point in their life. The age of exposure was also recorded, but the study did nothing to determine between continued use, dependence, or one-time use. By asking the question in a "have you ever in your lifetime" format, the conclusions that can be drawn between drug use and drug policy become very limited.

But there is something to take away from this study. It does show that different drug policies around the world do not have a significant effect on how many people, over their lifetime, are exposed to a drug. Other factors of course contribute greatly which vary from country to country and lie outside drug policy, such as personal income, cost of drug, social surroundings, proximity to sources, etc.

Drug policies may however keep those who are exposed to drugs from becoming recurrent users. The threat of fines, imprisonment, losing home/family/car can deter those who encounter drugs to stay away from them but they are not going to have a large effect on whether people are exposed to drugs or not.

I will say this study lets us know that if you see a bunch of people walking around in the U.S. there is a good chance they have done cocaine, and an even better chance (almost 50%) that they have smoked pot.

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