According to the United Nations, 3.8% of the world’s population – roughly 266 million people – smoke marijuana at least once every year. In light of yesterday’s 4-20 “holiday,” we were curious to find out which countries contain the largest percentages of weed smokers.
When referencing marijuana data, it’s important to keep in mind that usage is self-reported, and is therefore limited to the extent of survey participants’ honesty (and clarity of mind). The chart below uses figures from the 2011 World Drug Report compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. This report culled its data from a variety of sources – local studies, special population group studies, law enforcement agency assessments, questionnaires, and government reports – and some countries’ figures are tentative estimates based on the prevalence of other drugs.
The below graphic represents 163 of 196 of the world’s countries (data were not available for the other 33):
Data via UNODC’s 2011 World Drug Report (culled from local studies, special population group studies, law enforcement agency assessments, questionnaires, and government reports). Figures represent the percentage of people between the ages of 12 and 65 who consume marijuana at least once per year.
Papua New Guinea: Reefer Paradise
With 29.5% of residents reporting to smoke cannabis at least once per year (and as much as 56% of residents aged 15 to 20 years old), Papua New Guinea leads the list.
According to a historical study conducted by the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research, marijuana plants were first brought into the country by Australians after World War II, and have since been “integrated into community life.” Today, cannabis grows wild in the highlands (no pun intended), where fertile soils and high altitude suit the crop well.
There are a number of social and cultural factors that drive cannabis consumption in Papua New Guinea. It is not only plentiful and much cheaper than commercially imported alcohols, but is used to build a “collective solidarity and increase in trust among...like-minded consumers to facilitate sociality.” A series of interviews in 2007 revealed that the drug was “an important part of social identity and belonging, and there was little shame expressed in [using it].” Beyond this, it is also used as a “labour enhancer...to give the user energy and motivation,” as well as a muscle relaxant after a long day of work.
The nearby islands of Palau (24.2%), Mariana (22.2%), and Guam (18.4%) enlist the drug for similar reasons, and round out the top five.
Though these countries outrank the United States in percentages, the U.S. has a significantly higher number of weed consumers. In Papua New Guinea, 29.5% of the population amounts to 2.1 million smokers, while the U.S.’s 13.7% amounts to 43.7 million smokers – the most in the world, by far.
Singapore: Reefer Hell
Generally, there seems to be little correlation between a country’s legal stance on cannabis and the prevalence of its use. In the Netherlands, where smoking cannabis is legal in designated smoking areas and coffee shops, only 5.4% of residents report using the drug. With 6% reported use, Uruguay is similar – though cannabis was just recently legalized there in 2015, and this current figure comes from a 2006 study. While some countries where weed is decriminalized rank high on the list (Canada, U.S., Australia, Italy), others rank low (Peru, Ecuador, Nepal).
Below, we’ve included a sortable chart which clarifies the legal status of cannabis in each country, so you can compare and contrast for yourself:
Data compiled from various countries' legal statutes, via Wikipedia
There does, however, seem to be a correlation between how severe the punishment is for drug possession and reported use (this is unsurprising, considering that people are probably terrified to admit smoking weed – even anonymously).
In Singapore, where only .004% of study participants admitted smoking weed, the law allows an officer to search individuals without a search warrant if he "reasonably suspects that there is to be found a controlled drug or article liable to seizure." Under the Misuse of drugs Act (1973), if a person is caught with more than 15 grams (about 1/2 an ounce) of cannabis, he can be sentenced to death. If the amount is less, he is still subject to life imprisonment and/or a severe caning.
Singapore embarkation cards contain a warning to visitors about the death penalty for “drug trafficking,” which can include the possession of more than ½ ounce of marijuana
Singapore is not alone: some 32 countries – most of which rank very low on the chart above – hand out the death penalty for marijuana possession. Though these charges are typical handed down only for much larger amounts, the severity of the sentences instills fear in the countries’ residents, and likely dissuades them from admitting to smoking weed in these studies.
Japan, which ranks fourth to last here, with only 0.1% of respondents reporting marijuana use, has similarly strict controls in place. The Cannabis Control Act (which falls under the umbrella of the much larger Narcotics Control Act) has established harsh sentences for partakers over the course of 50 years, with few exceptions. Famously, Japanese authorities jailed Beatle Paul McCartney for 10 days in 1980, then deported him, after finding 7 ounces of cannabis in his luggage.
Ultimately, these figures are limited by their self-reported nature and age (some important statutes have been passed in these countries since 2011), but they are still telling of larger social and cultural trends.