Usage of cannabis among adolescents is higher in countries that have liberalised drug laws, according to a study.
The research asserts to be the first of its type. It found the effect is strongest for those countries that have liberalised cannabis laws for more than five years.
The study has been criticised by decriminalisation campaigners, who said the results were “skewed” and said prohibition wasted “scarce resources arresting teenagers”.
The report used data from the ‘WHO Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children’ survey in 38 European and North American countries.
It took information on the control policies of countries from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
“Our study showed the liberalisation policy in general was associated with higher levels of cannabis use, and depenalisation and partial prohibition policies were particularly correlated with regular use,” said the report.
The report said there had been “surprisingly limited” examination of the effects of liberalisation.
It said there were “considerable concerns” about increased usage being “induced” by greater access, favourable social norms and reduced penalties.
“Despite its limitations, this study for the first time examined the associations between country-level cannabis control policies and cannabis use from a global perspective in the adolescent population,” said the report
It broke down cannabis control policies to four types: Criminal prohibition; depenalisation (or prohibition with cautioning or diversion); decriminalisation; and partial prohibition (including effective legalisation).
It said that, of 38 countries in North America and Europe, 20 countries had liberalised cannabis to some extent during the study period. Of these 20, four had adopted depenalisation, 11 had decriminalised cannabis use, and seven had implemented partial prohibition.
“Adolescents were more likely to ever use cannabis, use in the past year and use regularly if they lived in countries that had liberalised cannabis use,” the research said.
It said that while cannabis use was higher among boys, the relationship between liberalisation and consumption among boys was “smaller in boys that in girls”.
“Cannabis liberalisation was significantly correlated with a higher odds of using cannabis regularly after the policy had been introduced for 5-10 years and more than 10 years, whereas the correlation was not significant within five years of policy implementation,” the report said.
The research, entitled Cannabis liberalization and adolescent cannabis use: a cross-national study in 38 countries, was published in Public Library of Science journal PLos ONE and made available in Ireland through the Health Research Board.
However, Graham de Barra of Help Not Harm, which is lobbying for a move away from criminalising drug use, said the research had made a “categorical blunder” by wrongfully defining the USA as a country that had liberalised cannabis policy, saying only two of its states had at the time.
“Cannabis use is high in the USA and, compared to some liberalised countries in Europe, the rate of use is much higher,” he said. “So, by wrongfully placing it in the category of a country with a liberalised policy, the results are skewed and deemed inconclusive due to statistical manipulation.”
Mr de Barra said the annual rate of drug overdose in Portugal, which had decriminalised drug possession, was three per million, compared to 45 per million in Ireland. He said Irish policy should prioritise harm reduction, treatment, and education to reduce overdoses and harmful use.
“The current approach wastes scarce resources arresting teenagers with small amounts of cannabis, which is making drug use more harmful and restricts employment and opportunities for young people,” he said.
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