The percentage of people who have tried illegal drugs has grown sharply in Finland from one generation to the next. While 8% percent of Finns born in the 1950s report having tried cannabis at some time in their lives, the figure was 14% for those born in the 1960s, 26% for those born in the 1970s, and 42% for those born in the 1980s. The growth rate has accelerated.
The findings are based on an analysis of material from a drug survey conducted by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) in 2018, recently published in the journal Yhteiskuntapolitiikka. The THL Drug Survey brought 3,229 responses from Finns aged 15 to 69.
The youngest of those born in the 1990s, were 19-28 years old - an active age of experimentation - when the survey was conducted. It is likely that the percentage of those experimenting with cannabis will continue to rise, possibly going well over 40 percent. Those born in the 2000s are only now reaching the age of experimentation, but the direction of experimentation is already rising sharply.
Similarly, for those born in the 1980s (Generation Y) and in the 1990s (Generation Z) the use of ecstasy, cocaine, LSD, and mushrooms is significantly more common than with other age groups. Typical for Generations Y and Z is that they have experienced significantly more substances than those of older generations had.
“We have grown accustomed to thinking of trends of drug use as trends that ebb and flow like waves. But if we look at drug use among the various generations, drug experimentation has increased incrementally from one generation to the next, and the trend is constantly upward”, says research professor Pekka Hakkarainen at THL.
New technologies and drug market
The growing use of online markets based on an encoded network (darknet) and protected communications applications is changing how illegal drugs are supplied. One tenth of those in Generation Z who have used drugs say they acquired their substances exclusively or usually on the darknet, and one in three say they go there sometimes.
The coronavirus pandemic may have boosted the share of online marketing in a situation in which moving around, and close contacts have decreased.
The survey says there are big generational differences in attitude towards drugs. Two thirds of members of Generations Y and Z felt that the risks involved in experimenting with cannabis are small, at most. The most positive attitudes toward regular cannabis use came from Generation Z, where 40% of men and nearly 20% of women saw the risks as slight.
Attitudes toward trying other drugs were more cautious, even though respondents saw differences between the different substances. About 30% of respondents from Generations Y and Z saw the risk in experimenting with ecstasy as small, at most.
Cannabis holds “pole position” in the general climate of opinion. More than half of those in Generation Y (54%) and Generation Z (59%) felt that the use of cannabis should be decriminalized, and more than a third of those in older age groups felt the same way. Although support for the legalisation of cannabis is clearly lower than this, most respondents would favour some degree of legal availability, especially for medical use.
Ending punishments for personal use of all drugs is supported by just under 30% of people in the Generation Y and Z age groups, THL says.
Contacts with drugs more frequent
“The generational point of view reveals the different cultural and societal conditions in which the experiences with and significance of drugs have emerged among Finnish youth over the decades. Meanings established in the tender years of youth often remain quite unchanged throughout life. This is clearly reflected in differing opinions that Finns of different ages have on illegal drugs and in the differences in the views that they have on how dangerous they are”, says Mikko Salasuo, Leading Senior Researcher at the Finnish Youth Research Society.
Born in the 1980s, Generation Y seems to be a transitional generation in attitudes toward drugs. It is among them that cultural expressions and contacts related to drugs have become more diverse and more frequent.
Another big difference is that they are the most resistant to regular binge drinking. The change has been helped along by the spread of digital technology which has led to networking by Generation Y as part of international youth culture and has built its relationship with drugs out of an unprecedented amount of information and vision.
“Among Finns under 40 years of age drug experimentation, either their own, or that of their friends, has become quite a normal thing”, Hakkarainen says.
Although the study has focused mainly on experimentation with drugs, other research has shown that as the use of intoxicants increases, so does harm caused by their use. Not everybody stops after the experimentation phase or manages to control it in other ways.
“Especially the younger generations appear to be trying several different drugs and using them together with alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs”, observes Karoliina Karjalainen, Senior Researcher at THL.
“Finnish society faces a new situation. The changed attitudes toward drugs among younger generations challenges the current policies in society, while the increased versatility of the market, growing use, and changes in how drugs are used create pressures for the development of society's service system and how it reacts”, the authors say in their article.