Prevalence and patterns of drug use


Box 4: Estimating drug use in the population

Drug use in the general population is assessed through surveys, which provide estimates of the proportion of the population that has used drugs over defined periods of time: lifetime use (experimentation), last 12 months’ use (recent use) or last 30 days’ use (current use) (1).

The EMCDDA has developed a set of common core items (‘European model questionnaire’, EMQ) that is implemented in, or compatible with, most surveys in the EU Member States. The EMQ is included in a report available on the EMCDDA website (2). ‘Lifetime use’ may be of limited value as an indicator of the current situation among adults (although it could be a reasonable indicator among school children), but in conjunction with other measures it can give insight into aspects of patterns of use (continuation or discontinuation of use) and the generational dynamics of the spread of drug use. ‘Last 12 months’ use’ gives an indication of recent drug use, although often this use will be occasional, and ‘last 30 days’ use’ gives an indication of more current use, which will include people using the drug frequently.

(1) For more about the methodology of population surveys, and the methodology used in each national survey, see the 2005 statistical bulletin.

(2) Handbook for surveys about drug use among the general population.

The latest ESPAD survey data, from 2003, reveal that the highest lifetime prevalence of cannabis use among 15- and 16-year-old school students is in the Czech Republic (44 %) (Figure 1). The lowest lifetime prevalence estimates (less than 10 %) occur in Greece, Cyprus, Sweden, Norway, Romania and Turkey. Countries where the rate is higher than 25 % include Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Slovenia (27 % and 28 %), while the highest lifetime prevalence estimates, ranging from 32 % to 40 %, are reported in Belgium, France, Ireland and the United Kingdom. In most countries, since 1995, there has been a consistent increase in the number of school students who have ever tried cannabis (20). However, country variations are marked.

New data from 2003 ESPAD surveys of 15- to 16-year-old school students show that lifetime prevalence of cannabis use ranges from 3 % to 44 %. Between 2 % and 36 % school students report having used the drug in the last 12 months, while use in the last month ranged from 0 % in some countries to 19 % in others (21) (Figure 1). There are relative variations in the different prevalence rates. For example, lifetime prevalence is highest in the Czech Republic, but current (last month) use is highest in Spain and France (22 %).

Figure 1 Lifetime, last year and last month prevalence of cannabis use among 15- to 16-year-old school students in 2003


(1) Turkish figures are based on one major city in each of six different regions (Adana, Ankara, Diyarbakir, Istanbul, Izmir and Samsun).

(2) German data are based on six regions only (Bavaria, Brandenburg, Berlin, Hesse, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Thuringia).

(3) Spain did not participate in the ESPAD survey. The data included here are based on a Spanish survey conducted in November–December 2002. Drug prevalence questions may be considered comparable to the ESPAD questions, but other aspects of the method mean that the Spanish data are not strictly comparable.

Source: Hibell et al., 2004.


In nearly all countries, prevalence of cannabis use is higher among males than in females. Gender differences are more marked for students who report having used cannabis 40 or more times in their life (22).

Older students (17–18 years) were included in national school surveys conducted in 11 Member States and Bulgaria. Lifetime prevalence of cannabis use in this age range varied from less than 2 % in Cyprus to 56 % in the Czech Republic, while current (last month) cannabis use ranged from less than 1 % in Cyprus to nearly 30 % in France. In all countries that conducted surveys, except Cyprus, prevalence estimates among older students were higher than those for 15- to 16-year olds (23).

Between 1999 and 2003, in the Czech Republic there was an increase of 5 % in the number of school students who reported having tried cannabis at the age of 13 or younger. Thirteen other EU countries reported small increases (1–3 %) (24). A decrease (of 1 %) was reported only in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

According to a recent Eurobarometer (2004) study (25), the numbers of young people aged 15–24 years who declared that they had been offered cannabis rose from 46 % in 2002 to 50 % in 2004. In the same period, the number of young people who reported that they knew people who had used cannabis also rose from 65 % to 68 %.

ESPAD surveys show that school students’ perceptions of cannabis, both of the risks associated with use and of the availability of the drug, are strongly correlated with lifetime prevalence of cannabis use. The relationship between risk and prevalence is an inverse one (26), i.e. high perceptions of risk are associated with low prevalence of use and vice versa, but the perception of availability is directly correlated with lifetime prevalence of use (27).

Young people in countries with higher than average prevalence estimates for cannabis use may be increasingly disposed to regarding cannabis use as ‘normal’. Most countries that report relatively high estimates of lifetime use of cannabis also report relatively high estimates for 'binge' drinking (defined as drinking five or more drinks in a row) during the last 30 days (28), suggesting that the two behaviours may be part of a common lifestyle. Exceptions to this pattern are displayed by France, Italy and Bulgaria, where cannabis use is relatively high but binge drinking is relatively low.

(20) See Figures EYE-1 (part ii) and EYE-1 (part ix) in the 2005 statistical bulletin.

(21) See Chapter 3 for a more detailed account of cannabis use among school students.

(22) See Figure EYE-1 (part iii) in the 2005 statistical bulletin.

(23) See Tables EYE-1 and EYE-3 in the 2005 statistical bulletin.

(24) See Figure EYE-1 (part vii) in the 2005 statistical bulletin.

(25) A second Eurobarometer survey (Eurobarometer, 2004), Young people and drugs, was conducted in 2004. This non-probability sample survey comprised 7 659 young people aged 15–24 in the 15 Member States included in the previous 2002 survey.

(26) See Figure EYE-1 (part v) in the 2005 statistical bulletin.

(27) See Figure EYE-1 (part vi) in the 2005 statistical bulletin.

(28) See Figure EYE-1 (part viii) in the 2005 statistical bulletin.