NZ’s cannabis legalisation referendum may be influenced by fears around its impact on young people.

NZ cannabis referendum raises questions about impacts on youth

George Driver August 21, 2020

AAP FactCheck Investigation: Did harmful drug use among youth decline following cannabis legalisation and decriminalisation in Uruguay and Portugal?

The Statement

“(Portugal and Uruguay) saw, as I recall it, in both countries, actually a reduction in harmful drug use by young people as a consequence of what they did. One decriminalised, one legalised, they both had massive education programs and both invested heavily in addiction treatment.”

Andrew Little, Labour Party MP, August 11, 2020.

The Analysis

As New Zealanders prepare to vote on whether to legalise cannabis, Labour MP Andrew Little is using the experience of other countries to dampen fears more liberal laws will lead to a spike in adolescent drug usage.

A referendum to decide if New Zealand should legalise recreational cannabis will be held alongside the general election on October 17.

During an interview on The AM Show on August 11, Labour Party MP Andrew Little said overseas evidence showed youth drug use actually decreased after drug liberalisation. (Video mark 6min 24 secs).

“I think if you look at the overseas experience too, the two countries that are probably most advanced, because it’s been in place the longest, are Portugal and Uruguay,” Mr Little said.

“They’ve been dealing with this issue for well over 10 years. They saw, as I recall it, in both countries, actually a reduction in harmful drug use by young people as a consequence of what they did.

“One decriminalised, one legalised, they both had massive education programmes and both invested heavily in addiction treatment.”

AAP FactCheck examined Mr Little’s statement that harmful drug use declined among young people in Uruguay and Portugal after drug liberalisation.

In 2013, Uruguay made worldwide headlines as the first country in the world to legalise the sale, production and cultivation of recreational cannabis. (Page 1)

A recent report by the NZ Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (PMCSA) on the impacts of cannabis legalisation looked at the research on Uruguay since legalisation.

It said “very few studies of the impacts of legalisation in Uruguay have been undertaken, so little is currently known about the public health or social impacts of legal recreational cannabis”.

It cites a study titled The Impact of Cannabis Legalisation in Uruguay on Adolescent Cannabis Use, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in June 2020, which claims to present the first empirical evidence on the impact of legalisation on adolescent cannabis use (Page 1).

The report was based on the results of a biennial survey of high school students in Uruguay between 2014 and 2018, as compared to a control group of high school students in Chile, where cannabis is not legal.

It found “no evidence that cannabis legalisation impacted rates of adolescent cannabis use or their perceived risk of cannabis use”. However, the study’s authors highlight the fact legal sales of cannabis only began in 2017, saying further research is needed to assess the long-term impacts.

The study did not make comment on whether the cannabis use was harmful or otherwise, which Mr Little’s comment centres on, and AAP FactCheck found no research on this topic.

In relation to youth drug use in Portugal, Mr Little’s office said his statement was based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, written by journalist Johann Hari and published in 2015.

The book cites figures from Portugal’s Ministry of Health showing the number of problematic drug users halved, from 100,000 to 50,000, following the decriminalisation of drugs in 2001.

A separate paper, Portuguese Defiance: Analysing the Strenuous Relationship Between Drug Decriminalization and International Law, cites the same statistics (page 745). The figures were not specific to adolescent users.

Another report, titled What Can We Learn from the Portuguse Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?, published in the British Journal of Criminology in 2010, found a decline in harmful drug use across all users aged 15 to 64 years old (page 9). It also notes drug use in 15- to 16-year-olds increased in the lead-up to, and immediately following, decriminalisation before declining. (Page 9).

These figures were based on the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), which collected comparable data on substance use among 15- to 16-year-olds in 48 European countries since 1995. The surveys are conducted every four years and the most recent survey was 2015.

ESPAD results between 1995 and 2015 show youth drug use increased in Portugal between 1995 and 2003 and then levelled off, mirroring trends across Europe.

The proportion of all Portuguese students that had tried cannabis, shown in ESPAD table 64, increased between 1995 to 2003, rising from seven per cent to 15 per cent, then fluctuated by a few percentage points in the next few surveys before returning to 15 per cent in 2015.

ESPAD Table 64 shows these trends are similar for European countries without liberal drug laws, therefore they can’t be described as the result of drug decriminalisation.

Other research found a slight decrease in drug use among young people in Portugal following decriminalisation. A non-peer reviewed report by libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, titled Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies, found the number of 13- to 15-year-olds who had used drugs declined from 14.1 per cent in 2001, to 10.6 per cent in 2006 (page 11).

Using figures attributed to the 2007 draft annual report of the Portuguese government’s Institute of Drugs and Drug Addiction, the Cato Institute report says for those aged 16 to 18, usage rates decreased from 27.6 per cent in 2001, to 21.6 per cent in 2006 (pages 11 and 12). The statistics relate to all drugs, not just cannabis.

The Verdict

There is no definitive, reliable evidence supporting the statement that harmful cannabis use amongst youths in Portugal and Uruguay decreased following the liberalisation of drug laws.

Cannabis use in Uruguay appeared unchanged following cannabis legalisation in 2013, however the researchers note further studies are needed to determine the full impact of the law change.

In Portugal, some research suggests drug use among youth declined following decriminalisation in 2001, while longer-term surveys suggest drug use slightly increased. None of the research made comments or findings about whether the cannabis usage was harmful or otherwise, and the results were similar across Europe, regardless of legalisation.

Ambiguous – It is not possible to determine the veracity of the claim.

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