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U.S. Leads the World in Illegal Drug Use

Survey: People With Higher Incomes More Likely to Use Legal and Illegal Drugs; Marijuana Use Widely Reported in U.S.
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WebMD Health News

June 30, 2008 -- Despite tough anti-drug laws, a new survey shows the U.S. has the highest level of illegal drug use in the world.

The World Health Organization's survey of legal and illegal drug use in 17 countries, including the Netherlands and other countries with less stringent drug laws, shows Americans report the highest level of cocaine and marijuana use.

For example, Americans were four times more likely to report using cocaine in their lifetime than the next closest country, New Zealand (16% vs. 4%),

Marijuana use was more widely reported worldwide, and the U.S. also had the highest rate of use at 42.4% compared with 41.9% of New Zealanders.

In contrast, in the Netherlands, which has more liberal drug policies than the U.S., only 1.9% of people reported cocaine use and 19.8% reported marijuana 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," researcher Louisa Degenhardt of the University of New South Wales, Australia, and colleagues write in PLoS Medicine.

U.S. Leads Drug Use

In the study, researchers surveyed more than 54,000 adults in the Americas (Colombia, Mexico, and the United States), Europe (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Ukraine), Middle East and Africa (Israel, Lebanon, Nigeria, South Africa), Asia, (Japan, China) and Oceania (New Zealand).

The survey included questions about legalized drug use, such as alcohol and tobacco, and illegal drug use, including cocaine and marijuana, during the participant's lifetime.

Overall, alcohol had been used by most of those surveyed in the Americas, Europe, Japan, and New Zealand compared with much smaller proportions in the Middle East, Africa, and China.

Tobacco use was also most common in the U.S. (74%), followed by Lebanon (67%) and Mexico (60%).

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.

"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, as well as (in many U.S. states), a higher minimum legal alcohol drinking age than many comparable developed countries," write the researchers.

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