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How the World Gets Stoned: Cannabis Findings from the Global Drugs Survey

The newly-published results of an international survey has given a glimpse into how people around the world consume cannabis.

The results of the Global Drug Survey (GDS) 2017 was published on 24 May, providing a wealth of data on how people around the world use drugs. Almost 120,000 people from 50 countries participated in this year’s GDS, which has been investigating international drug use trends since 2009. The latest survey asked respondents a range of questions relating to drugs, including on the frequency of their use, the source of their purchases, and their methods of consumption.

While people from over 50 countries participated in the survey, it is important to note that the majority of the 120,000 respondents were based in North America or Europe. Over 60 per cent of participants were from either Germany, Denmark, the USA, Switzerland, or the UK.

Over 90 per cent of respondents identified as white, 68 per cent were male, and almost one in three were full-time students.

For these reasons, as well as the seemingly higher likelihood of participants having used drugs when compared to the wider population, the GDS does not purport to demonstrate estimates of national or international rates of drug use. Rather, it “is designed to answer comparison questions that are not dependent on probability samples”, allowing us to consider trends and patterns in drug use across different jurisdictions and cultures.

For brief context, cannabis was the most common drug that GDS participants reported having used at least once in their life, after alcohol. Over 77 per cent of respondents admitted to prior cannabis use, notably higher than the 63.1 per cent who admitted prior tobacco use, and the 19.1 per cent who had previously used cocaine.


Methods of Cannabis Consumption

Internationally, smoking a joint was – by far – the most common method of cannabis consumption among those who reported having used it. Over 71 per cent of respondents claimed joints to be their "main method" of consumption; those reporting the use of bongs, pipes, or vapourisers as their primary method made up less than 10 per cent each.

However, the definition of a “joint” is not set in stone. Here, we find perhaps the most marked international variation in cannabis consumption.

In European countries, over 50 per cent of cannabis-using participants in each country reported smoking joints that contain both cannabis and tobacco as their primary method. This ranged from 58 per cent of respondents in Finland, to a huge 94 per cent in Italy. Conversely, in the Americas, mixing tobacco was relatively uncommon among respondents who consumed cannabis; in the US, only eight per cent claimed to do so.

Adam Winstock, the founder of the GDS, warned that millions of people who use cannabis around the world are significantly increasing the harm to themselves by mixing it with tobacco before smoking. In a blog post on the GDS website, Winstock writes that cultural change is vital for people to “dissociate tobacco use from cannabis”.

"We must teach people how to roll joints without tobacco”, Winstock insisted, “Or even better, vape!”

Less than six per cent of international GDS respondents claim that using a vapouriser is their main method of cannabis consumption. This method was most common in Finland and the US, where it was reported as the main method by 18.9 per cent and 12.7 per cent of participants respectively.


Marijuana in the Morning

Another interesting international divergence in the behaviour of people who use cannabis emerged when respondents were asked how soon they smoke a joint after waking up. Again, a marked difference appeared between respondents in the Americas and those in Europe. Four of the five nationalities most likely to smoke within an hour of waking were in the Americas; the US topped the list with over one in five respondents claiming to enjoy a regular wake and bake. Nine of the 10 nationalities least likely to do so were European, with the lowest reported figure being the Netherlands' 3.6 per cent.


Problematic Use

Rates of perceived problematic cannabis use – whereby the individual perceives that their rate of use is too high, or they had sought treatment for their use – also varied considerably internationally.

The highest rates were in Denmark, where 44 per cent of respondents said that they would like to use less cannabis, while 2.1 per had sought emergency medical treatment following cannabis use during the previous year. Some of the lowest rates were in the US; the rate of those who intended to use less was half that of the Danes' – 22.2 per cent – while only 0.4 per cent of respondents who use cannabis had sought emergency medical treatment in the previous year.

The discrepancy in rates of seeking medical care may be related to healthcare provisions, which can be expensive and inaccessible for many people in the US, unlike in most European countries.

Interestingly, the proportion of people who reported having sought medical treatment for cannabis use globally plummeted by half between the GDS2016 and the GDS2017; from 1.2 to 0.6 per cent of respondents who use cannabis.


Another Global Drug Survey will take place over the next year. It will be interesting to see if reforms in cannabis policy influence consumption behaviour and attitudes toward the drug.

Read the key findings report of the GDS2017 here

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