Cannabis and other illicit drug use

The ESPAD results reveal that the use of illicit drugs reported by adolescent students has increased from 1995 to 2011 and has been declining since then.

The latest ESPAD survey showed that in 2019, on average, 1 in 6 school students (17%) reported having used an illicit drug at least once in their life, with levels varying considerably across the ESPAD countries (range: 4.2%–29%). Lifetime prevalence of illicit drug use in this group has been declining slightly since 2011, although has been generally stable over the past two decades.

ESPAD monitors the level of use of several illicit substances, including cannabis, ecstasy, amphetamine, methamphetamine, cocaine, crack, heroin, LSD or other hallucinogens, and GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate). For these substances information on the frequency of use in lifetime and during the last 12 months, the perceived availability, as well as the age of first use are collected.

Among illicit drugs, cannabis continues to generate significant policy and public interest in Europe, and the ESPAD results confirm that it is still the illicit drug most used by school students in participating countries (the prevalence of lifetime use of illicit drugs mainly relates to cannabis use, whose average lifetime prevalence is 16 %).

Cannabis is also perceived to be the easiest illicit substance to get hold of, with around one third of ESPAD students (32 %) rating cannabis as easily obtainable.

Long-term trends in ESPAD average cannabis use indicate an increase in both lifetime and last-month use between 1995 and 2019, from 11 % to 16 % and from 4.1 % to 7.4 %, respectively. However, lifetime use has slowly declined since 2011, while last-month use has stabilised since 2007.

The ESPAD data also indicate that cannabis use and its perceived availability vary widely among European adolescents, with the large differences in these indicators observed across ESPAD countries not showing any tendencies towards convergence.

High-risk cannabis use has been explored for the first time in all participating countries in the 2019 survey through the CAST (Cannabis Abuse Screening Test) tool. The results revealed that, on average, 4% of respondents fell into this category and are potentially at risk of developing cannabis-related problems.

As research shows, the links and causal relationships between policy, availability and cannabis use are still unclear. In recent years, new forms of cannabis have been developed and cannabis products tend to be much more potent than in the past. This means that, even in countries where the prevalence of use underwent limited changes, the potential health risks for adolescents may have changed.

The changing context depicted by the ESPAD results, as well as the need to consider the complicated interplay
between community-level and individual-level characteristics suggests that understanding and closely monitoring this phenomenon among adolescents is important for formulating effective prevention policies.


Most recent scientific literature on cannabis and other illicit drug use based on ESPAD data:

Burdzovic Andreas, J. (2019), ‘Perceived harmfulness of various alcohol- and cannabis use modes: secular trends, differences, and associations with actual substance use behaviours among Norwegian adolescents, 2007-2015’, Drug and Alcohol Dependence 197, pp. 280-287, doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2019.02.003.

Burdzovic Andreas, J. and Bretteville-Jensen, A. L. (2017), ‘Ready, willing, and able: the role of cannabis use opportunities in understanding adolescent cannabis use’, Addiction 112 (11), pp. 1973- 1982, doi:10.1111/add.13901.

Colasante, E., Fabi, F., Rossi, C., Tomba, G. S. and Molinaro, S. (2019), ‘Updated indicators to evaluate harmful drug use, in particular, poly-drug use’, Current Drug Research Reviews 11 (1), pp. 51-57, doi:1 0.2174/1874473711666180924155231.

Gerra, G., Benedetti, E., Resce, G., Potente, R., Cutilli, A. and Molinaro, S. (2020), ‘Socioeconomic status, parental education, school connectedness and individual socio-cultural resources in vulnerability for drug use among students’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17 (4), p. 1306, doi:10.3390/ijerph17041306.

Kážmér, L., Chomynová, P. and Csémy, L. (2019), ‘What affects what? Perceived cannabis availability and its use among Czech urban youth — a multilevel sociogeographic analysis’, SAGE Open 9 (2), p. 2158244019846696, doi:10.1177/2158244019846696.

Kraus, L., Seitz, N.-N., Piontek, D., Molinaro, S., Siciliano, V., Guttormsson, U., Arpa, S., et al. (2018), ‘ “Are the times a-changin”? Trends in adolescent substance use in Europe’, Addiction 113 (7), pp. 1317-1332, doi:10.1111/add.14201.

Kun, B., Urbán, R., Paksi, B., Griffiths, M. D., Richman, M. J. and Demetrovics, Z. (2019), ‘The effects of trait emotional intelligence on adolescent substance use: findings from a Hungarian representative survey’, Frontiers in Psychiatry 10, p. 367, doi:10.3389/ fpsyt.2019.00367.

Legleye, S., Eslami, A. and Bougeard, S. (2017), ‘Assessing the structure of the CAST (Cannabis Abuse Screening Test) in 13 European countries using multigroup analyses’, International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research 26 (1), p. e1552, doi:10.1002/mpr.1552.