The decline of marijuana

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.

13 thoughts on “The decline of marijuana

  1. I wonder if the lower marijuana use is correlated to lower tobacco smoking? I think both are becoming more socially unacceptable. I think HC quoted on his blog that the only drug that showed increase usage was in coccaine while ectasy use remained high. I have no doubt that both these drugs would be more fashionable with use dependant on the earning capcity of the user. Perhaps the rudd govt should find a way to tax ectasy and coacaine use to solve the “coccaine and ectasy” epidemic amongst young people.


  2. I’m still betting its mainly unemployment. It reduces overall demand in two ways, first, lots of bored unemployed people that take drugs all day don’t exist anymore, and it also reduces people selling/growing drugs (hence reduces the exposure other people get). You don’t see a reduction in amphetamine type drugs because people need them to party all weekend because they work in the week and are more tired. If you’re unemployed, you don’t need to worry about that.

    Even if unemployment is not a big factor, its certainly cyclical socially, as drugs go in and out. THe obvious one is heroin. It gets really big (early 80s, mid 90s) for a while as people forget how fun it isn’t seeing people slobber on themself and on the nod on trams etc., and dies out as the appeal dissappears once too many people start taking it.


  3. Recent ecstasy use was 3.5% overall, stable among men and slightly up among women. Recent cocaine use is up, mainly among people in their 20s and 30s, but still only 1.6% overall.


  4. Conrad – Meth/amphetamine use is also down, ice perhaps have received even worse publicity than marijuana, with big drops in both teen and 20s users.

    I can see the logic of the employment argument, esp. when we look at supply as well as demand, but this does not explain why illicit drug use rose 1993 to 1998 as unemployment was easing. Given that the chance of being arrested for drug use is low, and marijuana use has always significantly exceeded unemployment, I think that personal preferences/social norms are likely to be the most important factors.


  5. “but this does not explain why illicit drug use rose 1993 to 1998 as unemployment was easing”

    I think 1) the long term unemployed are the big instigators of it, and this didn’t decrease much in those years. The graph is in this publication.

    and 2) unemployed youth are especially likely culprits, and that was pretty high until the very late 90s if I remember correcetly (sorry, I can’t find the stats right now).

    and 3) There’s a lag, so it takes a few years for everything to propagate through.


  6. Sorry, I have a 4th factor that is important in terms of unemployment and drug use.
    4) The male rate is more important than the female rate.


  7. I think you’re spot on about people being increasingly concerned about its link with mental illness. This would reduce the number of young people who are willing to try/make a habit of smoking weed.

    While alcohol consumption is going down amongst australians as a whole, I’m told it has been going up amongst the young. Could young people be substituting alcohol in place of other drugs like marijuana because they perceive it to be lower risk?


  8. Robert – At least since 2004, ‘risky’ drinking (defined as 7 or more standard drinks for men, 5 for women) weekly or monthly is slightly down for teens and twenties, though still very high – 26.3% for teens, 39.6% for twenties.

    But this is not inconsistent with some people switching from marijuana to alcohol.


  9. Conrad – I don’t disagree that improved propsects for young people are a positive force here, but particulary marijuana use has always been far more widespread than them, including many otherwise respectable people with jobs and responsibilities.


  10. Its all relative. how many % more a kid does one drug over another, i think is futile thinking. I do believe that some drugs are more dangerous to your health and addictive, grass is not one of them. So, i see the decline in marijuana use as not a good thing if they are moving on and using more detrimental substances and chemicals that do allot more damage


  11. Bill B. Within minutes of using cannabis ones heart rate increases by 20-50%, blood pressure also alters. Cannabis use is associated with a 4.8 times increased risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack) in the hour following use. A smoked joint yields around three times more tar and carbon monoxide than a tobacco cigarette. A study of students aged 14-15 over seven years found 68 % suffered a mix of depression and anxiety, i.e. a four fold increased risk of depression compared to non-users after controlling for other drug use.
    Look up the effects of prolonged cannabis use on teeth and early ageing. Mix cannabis with alcohol and the cocktail can be even more serious, some 95% of users do just that. One in four deaths on Victorian roads are showing the presence of THC.


  12. Andrew Norton says:

    This leaves fashion and social norms as major possible explanations.

    Pot is for lard-arsed, couch-potato losers. No person who who wants to be cool (approximately 95% of the population) wants to be looked at that way.


  13. graeme rule my man i gotta ask u haha whr du u get ur stats from?
    the true fact remains that in america, around 80000 people die from alcohol poisoning, and yet after all u sed, there has yet been no recorded death EVER due to thc (marijuana)
    the stats you show are for about 5 joins a day (chronic usage) which is seriously a very very high dosage. the government tries to send the wrong message about marijuana to little kids so they believe that drinking boose is safer. yet it is NOT and the stats proove it. there has been NO RECORDED DEATH due to marijuana in the world. medical marijuana is soon to be legalised in the u.s. if barrac obama wins, and i belive it wont be long since it is decriminalised here.


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