UNICEF report reveals levels of cannabis use among 11 to 15 year olds

One of the most recurrent criticisms of attempts to reform drug laws is that it will to children having greater access to drugs, thereby affecting their health and prospects. However there is evidence that this fear is unjustified. The United Nations Children’s Fund has released a report which assesses child well-being in 29 nations of the industrialised world. One of the factors they have investigated is the percentage of children aged 11, 13 and 15 who have used cannabis at least once in the past year.

Portugal, which decriminalised the use and possession of all drugs in 2001, came out well. 10% of its children had used cannabis, which was one of the lowest of the 29 countries. Compare this with the United States, where 22% of their children have used cannabis. UNICEF also pointed out that in 2001/02 19% of Portuguese children had used cannabis. That means that, far from an explosion of child drug use, the number of child cannabis users has almost halved since decriminalisation.

Many people would expect the Netherlands to have the highest percentage of young cannabis users because of its famously liberal policies. However only 17% of Dutch children have used cannabis. It has also seen a fall in the figure since 2001.

Canada had the highest child cannabis use rate – 28%. This is despite the fact that cannabis is a criminal offence. This seems to prove that prohibition can fail to protect children’s health.

Admittedly the second and third highest figures came from countries with fairly progressive drug policies, namely Switzerland (where possession of less than 10 grams of cannabis results in a 100 Swiss Franc fine) and Spain (where there may be as many as 300 cannabis clubs). And Norway, where cannabis is illegal, had the lowest child cannabis use rate (4.5%). This means it would be wrong to think that liberal policies necessarily mean less children using cannabis.

We can conclude from UNICEF’s findings that you can’t predict a country’s level of child drug use just by looking at its policies. This supports Release’s report ‘A Quiet Revolution’, which argues that drug laws have little impact on drug use – social and cultural factors are much more influential. But most importantly UNICEF’s report shows that progressive policies will not, as many people claim, inevitably create a lost generation of stoned children.