This is the second post in a blog series based on the findings of the 2015 annual European Drugs Report published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. In it, I explore the characteristics of frequent and high-risk cannabis users across the continent.
Europe’s favourite drug
Cannabis is Europe’s most commonly used illicit drug, with approximately 20 million adults, or around 6% of the population aged 15–64 years, having used the drug in the last year. Here are some other facts and figures:
- 11 million Europeans have used cannabis in the last month.
- 3 million have used the drug daily or almost daily in the last month.
- More than three-quarters of all reported drug law offences in the European Union are related to cannabis, and this figure has been increasing since 2006.
- In about two-thirds of the EU Member States, the cannabis market is dominated by herbal cannabis; cannabis resin dominates in the other Member States.
- The typical (modal) potency and price of cannabis ‘products’ varies widely among EU Member States, with potency (%THC) ranging from approximately 1% to 15%, and price from EUR 5 to EUR 15 per gram.
Despite its reputation as a social, benign substance, cannabis is the second most common drug (after heroin) for which Europeans seek help from drug treatment agencies.
The EMCDDA utilised two main data sources to explore frequent and high-risk cannabis use in Europe:
- General population surveys
- Monitoring data from drug treatment centres
The prevalence of frequent and high risk cannabis users
The most recent EMCDDA estimate suggests that almost 1% Europeans use cannabis daily or almost daily (defined as 20 days or more per month).
Since 2008, cannabis use is the main reason that Europeans enter drug treatment for the first time. Over this time, the number of first-time cannabis clients has risen markedly and cannabis users represent around half or more of all service users entering drug treatment in Cyprus, Denmark, France, Hungary and the Netherlands.
The characteristics of frequent and high risk cannabis users
Men are more likely to use cannabis than women and are much more likely to be frequent/high risk users. Latest figures show that men comprise approximately 70% of Europeans who used cannabis last year, 75% of those who used cannabis in the last month, 78% of those who use daily and 84% of people seeking treatment who reported cannabis as their primary drug.
The research literature highlights a number of differences between men and women who use cannabis on a daily or dependent basis. Women are significantly more likely to have a cannabis-using partner, but less likely to have a heavy cannabis-using social network. With similar patterns of cannabis use, they have greater concern about their cannabis use and perceived difficulty of quitting. Men with similar high patterns of use, in contrast, tend to have higher levels of alcohol and tobacco use, more criminal convictions and higher levels of psychosocial distress.
Frequent and high-risk cannabis users also tend to be young people (below 35 years of age). Roughly 70% of the estimated 3 million European daily cannabis users are aged between 15 and 34 with over 86% of clients entering treatment for their cannabis use in this age group., There are, of course, lots of older cannabis users but studies seem to suggest that people have been using cannabis for 10 years or longer have often established a routine of cannabis use which is less intensive than that of younger frequent users.
Data on the socio-economic status of frequent cannabis users are contradictory.
- A recent Dutch study found frequent cannabis users to have, on average, a higher level of educational attainment than the general population; however, they were more often unemployed or unable to work.
- A 2012 analysis of EU treatment demand data found that 87% (ranging from 50% to 98% between countries) of the cannabis users entering treatment were living in stable accommodation. 60% had completed at least secondary education again with variation by country, while almost half (47%) were in full-time education or employment. Unemployment among primary cannabis users entering treatment stood at 38.5% and ranged from 12% in Lithuania to 53% in Ireland and 65% in Turkey.
- A study among French adolescents supports the view that higher socio-economic status has a protective effect against daily cannabis use. Findings suggest that although young people from families with higher socio-economic status had higher risk of experimental use of cannabis, they were also less likely to engage in daily use of the drug.
The EMCDDA recommends that treatment interventions should be designed for predominantly young male populations with high levels of cannabis -related problems, poly-drug use patterns and likely mental health problems. Treatment options will of course have to take into account the significant minority of women among those with cannabis problems, who are likely to have different needs.
Looking towards the future, treatment services may see growing numbers of older cannabis users, if a sizeable proportion of the current and relatively large population of frequent cannabis users continue to use the drug intensively as they age.
It may be that changing patterns of cannabis use in the United States following legalisation in several states may be an indication of future trends.