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Iceland Mag


Do Icelanders really smoke more cannabis than anyone else?

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • Bags of weed Local Police raiding a cannabis producer. Despite what you might have read 1) Icelanders don't smoke more weed than others and 2) authorities don't turn a blind eye to pot. Photo/Valgarður Gíslason.

Earlier this week the Daily Mail ran a story with the headline „Forget Amsterdam! Iceland smokes the most cannabis“. According to the story the reason is that attitudes to cannabis smoking in Iceland are very liberal and its use tolerated by the authorities. The story has received considerable attention, being shared more than two thousand times. There is only one problem: While it has a catchy title, and even if fits the narrative of liberal permissiveness in Iceland, the story is wrong.

Yet another category in which Iceland excels, on a per capita basis?
The Daily Mail story is based on maps comparing the rates of drug and alcohol use in the US and Europe created by Recovery Brands, which operate substance abuse treatment centres in the US. The maps were created using statistics from the United Nations. The story claims that between 160 and 190 out of every 1,000 adults in Iceland smoke weed. The Daily Mail speculates that the reason is a mix of liberal attitudes to weed and the high price of alcohol:

“Marijuana is illegal in the cold country, but tolerated with users smoking or in possession of a small amount of the drug, getting a fine. It's unclear why the drug is so popular, but it may be because beer was only made legal 25 years ago and alcohol is expensive..."

The Daily Mail story is wrong on all counts. Cannabis use in Iceland is far from the highest in the world, and cannabis use is not tolerated by the authorities – beer in Iceland is also relatively cheap, at least compared to the other Nordics.

Related: Beer in Reykjavik not that expensive: cheaper than the other Nordic capitals

A misunderstanding, not a world record
While cannabis use has increased in Iceland in recent years, partially thanks to growing domestic production, Iceland is not among the countries with the highest cannabis use. The Daily Mail story is a recycling of a story which ran last year in international media, including the Washington Post

The UN figures were based on a misunderstanding. The UN used a survey performed by the Icelandic Directorate of Health in 2012. According to that survey which had a response rate of 58.3%, 35.9% of Icelanders 18-67 years old had at some time tried cannabis. Of those who said they had at some time tried cannabis 18.3% said they had smoked weed in the past year. It is this figure the UN, and the Daily Mail are using when they concluded that Icelanders set the world record in weed smoking.

The correct figure would be 6.6%, which is the proportion of Icelanders who had actually smoked weed in the year 2012. This figure puts Iceland in the 29th place in cannabis consumption internationally.

And authorities definitely don’t turn a blind eye to weed
The claim that the authorities turn a blind eye to cannabis smoking or possession of small amounts of the drug is also wrong. While people don’t face time in prison for possession of small amounts for personal use, the Police will arrest anyone carrying or consuming cannabis.

Attendees at the Extreme Chill electronic music festival at Snæfellsnes on August 7-9 2015 can attest to the fact that local police can get extremely aggressive when enforcing the law when it comes to cannabis. The Police arrested 29 people at a festival attended by 200 people for possession of drugs for personal consumption, overwhelmingly weed. Attendees at the festival were enraged by the manner in which the law was enforced, arguing that people’s civil rights were violated with illegal searches and other police brutality. Organizers told local news site that the Police had effectively hijacked the festival, ruining it.

Bottom line: Don’t break the law and don’t believe everything you read online!
While attitudes to weed have been changing in Iceland in recent years, with support for its legalization growing among the younger generation, weed is viewed very negatively by most Icelanders, and recreational drug use is not viewed as something a respectable person would engage in. Most people belonging to the older generations view cannabis as a hard drug.

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