The latest drug statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that illicit drug use is becoming less common. In the last six years (the survey goes back to 1993, but only since 2001 have huge 20,000+ samples been used) the proportion of Australians using any illicit drug in the last twelve months has declined from 16.9% to 13.4%.
What’s particularly interesting is the way it is falling away in the teen group, aged 14-19. While this is still an age of experimentation (the overall statistics are helped a lot by all us sober 40 plus people), the proportion of young men using illicit drugs in the last 12 months is getting close to having halved in just six years, from 28.8% to 15.6%. Among young women it is down from 26.6% to 17.7% (making this the only age group in which females are more likely to use drugs than males).
The main driver seems to be declining use of marijiuana/cannabis, which has more than halved among young men (26.6%/13.1%) and is significantly down among young women (22.6%/12.7%). The girls use party drugs more than the guys, accounting for their higher overall figure.
There is debate at Harry Clarke’s blog and Andrew Leigh’s blog about what might be causing these changes.
I doubt it is law enforcement, though Australian Crime Commission statistics do show a slight increase in drug arrests from 74,000 in 2001-02 to 78,500 in 2005-06. But cannabis arrests are fairly stable, and on my quick calculation the chance of a recent cannabis user being arrested for it is only 3%, so not a huge disincentive there.
I could not find good statistics on price shifts, which seem to be highly variable between states. But for marijuana, given the source is far more likely to be a ‘friend or acquaintance’ (68.5%) than a dealer (19.5%), market prices are hard to track. There was some discussion at the other blogs about reduced unemployment working against drug use, but employment also improves the affordability of drugs for those who have to pay for them, so I am not sure what the net effect would be.
This leaves fashion and social norms as major possible explanations. Unfortunately, the survey changed the wording of the crucial question between 2004 and 2007. Curiously, though, only 6.6% of respondents ‘approve’ of marijuana use, a lower number than have used it recently (9.1%). Perhaps recent users did not like it or felt they were being pressured into it. 16.9% neither approve nor disapprove of its use. Support for increased penalties for marijuana use went up from 58.2% to 63%. These answers are not broken down by age; it would be interesting to see young people’s attitudes.
At a guess, marijuana has had a bad press in recent years, with its link to mental illness and schizophrenia in particular being highlighted. Or perhaps the yoof-of-today are just more responsible than their elders. As the few teenagers I know are I suspect highly unrepresentative of teenagers generally, I am short on anecdotal evidence here. Suggestions welcome.