For that first cross-national drug-use study, WHO researchers 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: It took sixth place, while Ukraine led with 97% alcohol use. Germany came second with 95.3%, while New Zealand claimed the third spot, with 94.8%.
Researchers found gender and socioeconomic differences in both legal and illegal drug use. For example, men were more likely than women to have used legal and illegal drugs, and younger adults were more likely than older adults to have used drugs of all kinds.
Single adults were more likely than married adults to report tobacco, marijuana, and cocaine use but not alcohol use. People with higher incomes were also more likely to use both legal and illegal drugs."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," researcher Louisa Degenhardt of the University of New South Wales, Australia, and colleagues write in PLoS Medicine.
In the end, 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," the researchers noted.