Drug abuse has a vast impact on many areas of society: worker productivity, crime, quality of life, health care utilization, homelessness, prisons, child welfare, and more. Every country’s approach to dealing with social and economic issues posed by illicit drugs – from the decriminalization of drug possession in Spain and Portugal to the War on Drugs in the United States – is unique. The nations of the world take drug abuse seriously, and data collection is a crucial part of their efforts to tackle illicit substances. Most countries invest in domestic as well as international efforts to study and quantify the problem of drug abuse and its effects on the daily lives of its citizens.

Europe is an interesting point of comparison for the economic and social policies of the U.S. As a collection of nations with varying sizes and economic conditions, it can serve as a means to study social drug trends. Much like individual states in the U.S., some European countries have more significant drug problems than others as well as different social conditions and approaches to substance abuse issues. Every country tackles the problem of illicit drugs from multiple directions: from disrupting the drug trade to cracking down on drug sales in communities to supporting recovery services that help drug users break free of their addictions.

The following chart and maps show an unfortunate reality: America, when compared to European nations, is in the top five countries for almost every national measure of drug abuse. And while some European countries show up in the top five more often than others, none do as consistently as the U.S. This offers an opportunity to understand what works and what doesn't for different societies and potentially find ways to fix our own.

Alcohol use among nations

Compared to every other substance studied, alcohol – a legal substance for adults – is universally used far more often than any drug. All nations in the top five for self-reported adult alcohol use in the past year show rates above 85%. Moreover, the U.S. does not make an appearance in the top five; the stereotype of wine- and beer-drinking Europeans seems to hold true, as there are many European countries shaded a darker red than America on the map above. Notably, Turkey (a 99.8% Muslim nation) has an exceptionally low rate of alcohol use among European nations.

Cannabis use: America pulls ahead

In contrast to rates of alcohol use, the U.S. is near the top of the list when it comes to cannabis use. While the U.S. ranks second according to the United Nations (U.N.) Office on Drugs and Crime, the high result reported for Iceland is controversial. In the year before the study that concluded that Iceland was the No. 1 cannabis-using country in the world, a school survey had found student use rates to be exceptionally low: merely 34 per thousand or 3.4%. These U.N. studies combine data from different sources, often self-reported by the countries, and methodological differences can result in anomalies like this. Notably, the Netherlands, which is famous for its liberal attitude toward marijuana, doesn’t even make the top five – it’s eclipsed by Spain, the Czech Republic, and France.

The price of cannabis around the world

The U.S. shows a typical street price of $10-15 per gram of marijuana, and in Europe, prices are often even greater. Norway and Finland show costs ranging from $20-25 per gram, with nations like Cyprus, Malta and Iceland spiking to $25-35 per gram. Although accurate statistics on an illicit trade can be difficult to obtain, these figures show that no matter where you are, a drug addiction can quickly add up into an expensive habit.

Comparing cocaine use

When it comes to previous-year cocaine use, the U.S. is tied for first place with Spain, a nation having a drug crisis of its own. Spain and Portugal offer an interesting contrast: Both decriminalized possession of all drugs, “soft” and “hard,” in the last decade, concentrating on civil fines and treatment for users while reserving jail time for dealers.

While Portugal has been a success story and a model for other countries, including Spain and Italy, Spain's success has been decidedly mixed. A number of differences between the two countries – such as Spain’s decentralized government, which allows regions to set their own drug policies, and its long coastline facing drug smuggling routes from North Africa – show there is no one-size-fits-all solution to drug abuse.

Rampant opioid use in the U.S.

Sadly, America’s rate of adult opioid use is far ahead of any European country. The difference is even more marked than what’s seen when comparing cannabis or cocaine use in the U.S. versus Europe. This class of drugs includes prescription narcotics, such as OxyContin, which accounts for almost 94% of all opioid use in the U.S. Opioids, which are synthesized in laboratories, are distinct from opiates such as heroin (the direct product of opium poppy cultivation). Few countries have reliable opiate-specific use statistics due to the social stigma of illicit drugs, but we do know that the U.S. is comparable to many Eastern European countries such as Belarus and Bulgaria, with about five reported users per 1,000 people.

Prescription painkillers and heroin rank among the most addictive substances. Opiate and opioid dependencies can be quite tenacious, but substance abuse rehabilitation can help. Visit Rehabs.com for more information about a variety of treatment features and types – including supervised detox, medically assisted treatment, opioid maintenance programs and other effective therapies

U.S. first for amphetamine-type stimulant use

Breaking Bad may not have been that far off in its fictional depiction of the prominence of illicit stimulants in America. Per capita, the U.S. has a much higher rate of use of amphetamine-type stimulants – a category including methamphetamine and ecstasy – than any European country. Even the runner-up, Estonia, meets barely half of America’s prevalence of past-year amphetamine use.

A look at drug-related arrests

The U.S. has a reputation of harsh law enforcement practices and criminal penalties when it comes to drug use, possession, or sale. Unsurprisingly, it ranks high on the list of total drug-related arrests – placing at No. 2 overall. However, it pales in comparison to Spain – ironically, a country in which drug possession is no longer a criminal offense. This shows the massive challenge Spain faces as a port of call for smugglers of all types of drugs from all around the world – even Canadians have been arrested while trying to bring illicit substances into Spain.

Yearly drug overdose deaths by nation

When it comes to yearly deaths by drug overdose, the U.S. is in the company of Estonia, a Baltic nation where the dangerously powerful opioid fentanyl is smuggled in from Russia. However, it should be pointed out that these statistics rely on death certificates issued by doctors, and studies have shown that there can be substantial variations in what doctors report on death certificates, both on a cultural and individual level.

National availability of substance use treatment facilities

The U.S. is near the middle of the pack when it comes to the number of substance abuse treatment centers per capita. However, keep in mind that this statistic does not take into account the number of patients per center, which can vary from country to country and is not available for many countries. Ireland, infamous for its stereotype of alcoholism, does have many alcohol drinkers as seen on earlier maps, but likewise has many rehab centers to help them – about 39% more than the runner-up. Slovakia also ranks high on this list due to the nation’s numerous publicly funded opioid substitution therapy centers.

Number of people in treatment for substance abuse

As seen on the maps above, the U.S. may have a much larger problem with many drugs than most European countries – but encouragingly, a significant portion of people are getting help for their addictions as well. Compared to countries which have also shown significant problems with drug use among the public, such as Spain and Estonia, Americans appear to be more active in seeking out and/or receiving treatment: 75% higher than the runner-up, Malta. Unfortunately, the number of people who are treated for drug abuse and addiction is still dwarfed by the staggering number of people who are using drugs to begin with.

Finding help to conquer drug addiction

Substance abuse is a global issue, and no country’s citizens are immune to the dangers and harms of alcohol and drug abuse. But all nations recognize the importance of the fight, at the societal, local, and personal level. If you’ve decided to seek help with a substance use issue, you deserve professional assistance that’s designed to meet your needs. Visit Rehabs.com today to find treatment, rehab, and detox programs that fit your life. With the proper help, you can face your addiction – and fight back.


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