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When it comes to consuming substances of any kind, a surprising number of people are unaware of the recommended guidelines for the country in which they live, or one they may be travelling to, as well as how these laws differ around the world.
With this in mind, we have pulled data from different nations, to compare and analyse the various regulations and guidance when it comes to drugs and alcohol consumption around the globe.
This report also takes into account such topics as legal drinking ages around the world, if cannabis has been legalised and to what extent, how drastically alcohol guidelines according to gender, the penalties for ignoring drink and drug-related guidelines, and much more. This has subsequently allowed us to create our Drug and Alcohol Guidance Around the World Report.
As mentioned previously, the laws around alcohol consumption differ depending on where you are in the world – but just how do other countries compare to the UK’s current rules and regulations?
In order to answer this, founder and chief executive of Delamere, Martin Preston, shared his insight:
“Drinking limits are set for all kinds of reasons – with the most important being the impact heavy alcohol consumption can have on your overall health. For example, the NHS states that you should ‘drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread across 3 days or more’, as any more than this would be damaging to your liver.
“In the UK, the consumption guidelines are the same for both men and women. However, in Ireland, it is recommended that women only consume 14 units of alcohol a week, while men can consume 21. In fact, England, Scotland, and Wales are the only locations analysed for the report with the same alcohol consumption guidelines for both genders – but why?
“The Drink Aware website highlights that women have a higher percentage of fat in their bodies compared to men, which means they also carry less water. Having less water in your body can mean alcohol can become more concentrated, allowing it to affect you differently. This could, in turn, make alcohol more damaging to women in larger quantities.
“In Canada, the approach to alcohol consumption completely differs to its other western counterparts. Newly introduced national regulations across the country state that a zero alcohol approach is the only way to ensure no associated risks from drinking, and if you do drink, a smaller amount is better.”
As well as guidelines focused on the sexes, there are also laws that stipulate how old an individual has to be in order to consume alcohol. In the UK, the legal drinking age is 18. However, in the countries of Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland, it is just 16.
There are all kinds of scientific reasonings behind the age limitations of alcohol laws, with the biggest focus on the fact that children and young people would not be able to process alcohol in the same way a fully developed adult human would. As well as this, people under the age of 18 would most likely not understand the effects of alcohol, which could lead to alcohol poisoning and potential injury, or threat to life.
In nations including Egypt, India, and Indonesia, the legal drinking age of 21 is slightly older than across the majority of Europe. This goes to show that, while 18 may seem old enough to make the choice to consume alcohol in the UK, other, more religious countries still class it as far too young, highlighting that cultural and societal differences need to be taken into consideration.
The issue of whether cannabis should be legalised has been a red-hot topic across most of the world for decades, with seemingly persuasive arguments on both sides. However, with several countries now taking the steps required to decriminalise cannabis use within their borders, the question of what potential ramifications this could cause should not be ignored.
Dr Catherine Carney, a psychiatrist at Delamere, shares her thoughts on the matter below:
“In 2022, a government survey revealed that a surprising 11.5% of British adults between the ages of 16-59 had used cannabis every day that year. Despite the fact that cannabis remains a Class B drug in the UK, with a possible 5-year prison sentence for those found dealing the substance, many people clearly inhibit a laidback attitude towards the drug, without letting its legal consequences phase them.
“Many individuals claim – or have been led to believe – that cannabis is not addictive when this could not be further from the truth. In fact, some studies indicate that one in ten individuals who use cannabis become dependent.
“Taking this into account, it’s hardly surprising that the widespread use of the drug, alongside ongoing discussions around its legalisation, is a worrying concern to those with firsthand experience of the dangers cannabis can pose. Addiction becomes increasingly likely the more a person consumes, as their brain adapts to be able to tolerate larger and stronger amounts of the substance over a period of time.
“Moving away from a reliance on cannabis can be a long and difficult path, as taking the drug away will encourage a multitude of withdrawal symptoms in many users. On the other hand, if a person continues to consume the drug, signs and symptoms of cannabis intoxication will become more severe. These can include slurred speech, compromised memory, mood swings, poor attention span, and increased levels of anxiety.
“Speaking of anxiety, many people claim that cannabis, in fact, lessens symptoms of the disorder, rather than the other way around. There is some scientific evidence behind this claim, as cannabis has an impact on a neurotransmitter known as GABA (γ-Aminobutyric acid), which is actually the same thing that prescribed anxiety medication attempts to do. This could also explain why there has been a recent boom within the CBD (the non-psychoactive element of the cannabis plant) industry, as it also helps to assist with anxiety, without getting those who consume it ‘high’.
“As well as this, there have been several instances where cancer patients have claimed that cannabis has helped with the symptoms associated with their treatment. It has also been widely reported that pain from conditions such as M.S. (multiple sclerosis) has been minimised through the use of cannabis. However, in every instance where cannabis is used medicinally and prescribed by a qualified doctor, it is acknowledged that the act of smoking the drug is guaranteed to make any condition worse.”
Taking the above into account, it is interesting to note that many countries have decriminalised the use of the drug over time, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Croatia, and the Czech Republic. Some countries have even gone so far as to legalise the substance completely, with the governments in Canada, Georgia, Malta, Mexico, South Africa and Thailand all taking this stance.
When it comes to the USA, each state has a different view on the matter of cannabis, with some implementing harsh penalties, and others legalising its use. For example, in California, one can legally purchase the drug to consume, but across the country in Alabama, a citizen can be jailed for up to a year and fined up to $6,000 (around £4,971) for possession.
Surprisingly, despite being a Class A drug that comes with a maximum 7-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine, cocaine seems to be more prevalent than ever in the UK. In fact, during 2020, the UK had the ‘highest number of cocaine users in Europe’, despite the commonly-known dangers and risks associated with the substance.
For more insight into the risks of cocaine and why it is so addictive to users, we consulted the clinical director of Delamere, Mike Delaney:
“It is important to note just how dangerous the potential impact of cocaine is on the mind and body. It’s a very powerful stimulant, which is why many people favour it to keep them awake for long periods of time.
“As well as being a stimulant, cocaine also has the ability to drastically alter (if only temporarily) the brain’s dopamine centre and limbic system, making it harder for the brain to send signals to other body parts. Worryingly, this can become permanent with prolonged and long-term use of cocaine, as well as leading to potential damage of brain cells. This will eventually lead to your brain prioritising cocaine use above all else.
“It may well be a shock to learn that some countries legally allow cocaine in a medical setting, as it can be used as a local anaesthetic. In fact, this is how cocaine was originally discovered recreationally, due to its ability to numb certain parts of the body. It is still commonly used for nasal surgery in some countries and is known as a cocaine hydrochloride nasal solution.
“Despite some countries allowing cocaine in these specific medical settings, there are still strict penalties regarding recreational use. For example, in Australia, cocaine is known as a ‘Schedule 8’ controlled substance. In South Australia, dealing, possessing or being under the influence of the drug can carry a $50,000 (£42,279) fine and up to ten years of jail time.”
But how do other countries deal with the substance known as coke, snow, blow, snuff and dust?
Well, in Argentina, cocaine has been decriminalised, with the Supreme Court in the South American nation ruling that not doing so was, “an unconstitutional violation of the right to privacy and personal autonomy.”
In another South American nation of Brazil, cocaine was decriminalised in 2006, in the hope that it would “distinguish dangerous drug traffickers from simple drug users.” Despite this interesting yet obviously short-sighted ideology, initially created to keep people out of jail, the opposite effect happened – and the new law encouraged a massive surge in jail sentences linked to the drug.
At the other end of the spectrum, in Saudi Arabia, it is no surprise that the penalty for possessing, dealing or being under the influence of cocaine is very harsh, as the country abides by Sharia Law. The punishments can range from jail time (usually between two to ten years), to whippings, and even the death penalty in rare cases.
Finally, we have the Netherlands, which has an ‘unenforced’ outlook when it comes to cocaine. This is known as gedoogbeleid, which translates to a ‘policy of tolerance’, and was introduced back in 1912 under the Opium Law.
This law essentially separates drugs into two categories: ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. Cocaine falls under ‘hard’, so is technically illegal. However, as the country deems it as ‘unrealistic’ to be drug-free, cocaine possession regularly slips through the cracks. These polar-opposite attitudes of just a handful of countries help to highlight just how different guidelines are around the world, especially when it comes to drugs.
As we have previously mentioned, the punishments for drug dealing and possession differ depending on government, culture, religion, and the general ideology held by the country – with some countries decriminalising certain drugs altogether. After retrieving data from around the world, we were able to reveal just how much each country contrasted with the next.
Despite the Belgian government having a very relaxed stance when it comes to alcohol consumption (recommending a maximum of 26 units per week for men and 17 for women), it takes a very different attitude when it comes to drugs. Possession comes with a maximum penalty of one year in jail and up to an 800,000€ fine, while supplying drugs can lead to five years in prison.
In Brazil, the penalty for possession is far more lenient, typically only leading to community service and a warning from the court. However, supplying drugs can land you in prison for up to 15 years – quite the leap! In Egypt, drug possession can result in up to 25 years in jail, while supplying, in some cases, can lead to the death penalty.
Supplying drugs in Indonesia can also potentially land an offender with the death penalty, while in Hong Kong, doing so can mean a life sentence in jail and a HK$ 5,000,000 fine (around £528,561). Despite many people assuming the penalty for supplying drugs in the UK is quite lenient, it also threatens a life sentence and monetary fine for Class A drugs, while possession alone can mean up to seven years in prison.
It is safe to say that, in the past, there were some questionable guidelines when it came to drugs and alcohol. This was mostly due to the fact that research into the impact drugs and alcohol had on the body was very limited, and the general attitude to health was more relaxed.
But just how different are the thoughts and feelings towards these substances today?
To answer this question, resident psychiatrist Dr Catherine Carney offered her insight:
“To say attitudes towards drink and drugs have changed a lot over time would be an understatement. One of the most famous examples of this has to be the 1920s Guinness adverts that recommended their product to pregnant women. This was based on the fact that (unsurprisingly) people claimed to feel ‘good’ after drinking the beverage, as well as it containing high levels of iron.
“We now know that drinking while pregnant is extremely dangerous for both mother and foetus. This is due to the fact that alcohol consumed by a mother-to-be would go directly to their unborn child, potentially stunting their growth and the development of their nervous system. Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) can also occur when a child is exposed to alcohol before birth, resulting in both physical and mental differences.
“Despite this, quitting alcohol completely during pregnancy can also carry associated risks if the mother has been drinking heavily in the early stages of the child’s development. This is because the foetus would have, over time, developed an alcohol dependency, meaning the risk of miscarriage increases if an expectant mother suddenly went ‘cold turkey’.
“Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol dependence can also be very dangerous, ranging from seizures, hallucinations, delusion, tremours, and other possibly lethal side-effects. Due to this, withdrawing from alcohol in a safe and monitored environment is crucial.
“Thankfully, we have come a long way since alcohol was recommended for pregnant women – but this was not the only questionable advice once given by those in charge. In 1984 – less than 40 years ago – drinking guidelines were extremely different in the UK, with health officials recommending no more than a whopping 56 standard drinks a week for men, and 35 for women.
“Things improved slightly in 1987 with numbers lowered to 21 units or less of alcohol per week for men, and 14 units for women. More recently, in 1995, it was still being recommended that pregnant women should drink no more than 1 to 2 units of alcohol once or twice a week. Thankfully, in 2016, it was stipulated that no amount of alcohol was deemed totally safe to consume during pregnancy.
“When it comes to drugs, attitudes in the UK have done a complete 180° turn. In the 18th century, opium – a primary ingredient in Class A drug heroin – was introduced to the UK, and people took to it enthusiastically.
“Opium dens were rife in Victorian England, with people of all classes casually indulging. Thankfully, at the end of the 19th century, its popularity started to wane. Nowadays, possession of heroin can result in a hefty prison sentence and a large fine.
After viewing all of this data, it is difficult not to wonder whether the UK, despite its attitudes changing drastically over time, still inhibits a culture of dangerous drinking behaviours.
A recent article revealed that people in the UK binge drink more often than anybody else in the world, with many other countries often viewing the Brits as renowned for loving an alcoholic beverage. But do the experts believe that those in the UK typically have a genuine problem with alcohol?
Chief executive Martin Preston weighed in:
“It’s no secret that going to the pub and having a drink forms a huge part of British culture – after all, it allows people to socialise and wind down after a busy work day.
“However, in 2019, 23% of adults revealed that they regularly consumed more than the recommended 14 units of alcohol per week, highlighting a very real problem being brushed under the carpet. It can be very difficult to differentiate between a functioning alcoholic and somebody who has total control over their drinking, as they can still carry out daily activities and tasks.”
Some signs to look out for that may indicate a problem with alcohol include:
Overall, while attitudes towards alcohol are a lot healthier than they were in the not-so-distant past, it is no secret that people in the UK still have a negative relationship with the substance.
With many discussions around the loosening of cannabis restrictions making headlines, it is more important than ever to be aware of the physical and mental effects that all substances, can have on the body. Nobody should have to go through the ordeal of addiction alone, which is why it is vital to be aware of signs and symptoms that a loved one may be struggling.
Taking a seed list of the most visited countries in the world from the World Population Review, we have used web-based research to reveal how drug and alcohol guidance differs around the world, looking at the following categories:
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