Cannabis

The 2 most common subspecies within the cannabis genus from which cannabis is harvested are Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Cannabis comes in 3 main forms:

  • Herbal cannabis (also referred to as marijuana) – the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant (the weakest form);
  • Cannabis resin (hashish) – the dried resin from the cannabis plant;
  • Cannabis oil (hashish oil) – the oil extracted from the resin (the strongest form) (ACIC 2021a; NSW Ministry of Health 2017).

Cannabis is most commonly smoked in a rolled cigarette (joint) or water pipe, often in combination with tobacco, but it may also be added to food and eaten. Cannabis oil is generally applied to cannabis herb or tobacco and smoked, or heated and the vapours inhaled (ACIC 2021a).

The main psychoactive component of the cannabis plant is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is highest in the flowering tops and leaves of the plant. Other than THC, cannabis has more than 70 unique chemicals that are collectively referred to as cannabinoids (ACIC 2018). Cannabis is a central nervous system depressant, but also alters sensory perceptions and may produce hallucinogenic effects when large quantities are used (ACIC 2018; NSW Ministry of Health 2017). The use of cannabis for medicinal purposes was legislated by the Australian parliament in 2016.

Synthetic cannabis is a new psychoactive substance that was originally designed to mimic or produce similar effects to cannabis (Alcohol & Drug Foundation 2017). The availability, consumption and harms associated with synthetic cannabis are discussed further in the section on new (and emerging) psychoactive substances (NPS).

Key findings

View the Cannabis in Australia fact sheet >

Availability

Cannabis is relatively easy to obtain in Australia. Most participants in the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) and the Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS) report that cannabis is perceived as ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’ to obtain. This has remained relatively stable over time, as has perceived purity and pricing (Peacock et al. 2021; Sutherland et al. 2021a).

Perceived availability was the highest for hydroponic cannabis (88% of 2021 IDRS participants and 89% of 2021 EDRS participants rated it ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’ to obtain), followed by bush cannabis (78% of 2021 IDRS participants and 79% of 2021 EDRS users participants it ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’ to obtain) (Sutherland et al. 2021b; Sutherland et al. 2021a).

Data collection for 2021 took place from April–August for the EDRS and June–July for the IDRS. Due to COVID-19 restrictions being imposed in various jurisdictions during data collection periods for both the IDRS and the EDRS, interviews in 2020 and 2021 were delivered face-to-face as well as via telephone. This change in methodology should be considered when comparing data from the 2020 and 2021 samples relative to previous years.

The primary source of cannabis reported by people aged 14 years and over who had recently used cannabis was friends (65%), followed by dealers (17.9%) in 2019 (AIHW 2020, Table 4.101).

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) collects national illicit drug seizure data annually from federal, state and territory police services, including the number and weight of seizures to inform the Illicit Drug Data Report (IDDR).

According to the latest IDDR, in 2019–20, half (51%) of all national illicit drug seizures were for cannabis. However, cannabis only accounted for around a quarter (28%) of the weight of illicit drugs seized nationally. The number and weight of national cannabis seizures has increased over the last decade—the number of seizures increased from 50,073 in 2010–11 to a record 62,454 in 2019–20 and the weight seized increased from 5,452 kilograms in 2010–11 to a record 10,662 kilograms in 2019–20 (ACIC 2021a; tables S1.18 and S1.19).

The number of detections of cannabis at the Australian border increased between 2018–19 and 2019–20 by 15% (11,133 and 12,846, respectively). The number of detections has increased by 501% since 2010–11 (2,137).

The weight of cannabis detected at the Australian border increased from 69 kilograms in 2010-11 to 1,811 kilograms in 2018–19 before decreasing to 648 kilograms in 2019–20.

Consumption

For related content on cannabis consumption by region, see also:

Data by region: Illicit drug use

Cannabis continues to be the world’s most widely used illicit drug; 4% of the global population aged 15–64 years (or approximately 200 million people) reported using cannabis at least once in 2019. ­The reported consumption of cannabis in the past year in Australia and New Zealand by the adult population in 2020 (12.1%) was higher than the global average of more than 4.0% (UNODC 2022).

The 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) showed that cannabis continues to have the highest reported prevalence of lifetime and recent consumption among the general population, compared with other illicit drugs (AIHW 2020, tables 4.2 & 4.6). Note: for the first time in 2019, people who had used cannabis only for medicinal purposes and always had it prescribed by a doctor were identified and excluded from data relating to the recent use of cannabis, which focuses on illicit use (AIHW 2020). Data relating to the medicinal use of cannabis are reported separately (see Medicinal cannabis).

  • For people aged 14 and over in Australia in 2019, 36% had used cannabis in their lifetime and 11.6% had used cannabis in the prior 12 months (Figure CANNABIS1).
  • The lifetime use of cannabis has increased from 33% in 2001 while recent use of cannabis has decreased from 12.9%.
  • Lifetime and recent use of cannabis increased significantly between 2016 and 2019 (up from 35% and 10.4% in 2016, respectively) (AIHW 2020, tables 4.41 and 4.43).

Figure CANNABIS1: Lifetimeᵃ or recentᵇ use of cannabis, people aged 14 and over, by age and sex, 2001 to 2019 (per cent)

The figure shows the proportion of people who recently used cannabis by age group between 2001 and 2019. Between 2001 and 2019, there were decreases in the proportion of people aged 14–19 (from 24.6% to 13.3%) and 20–29 (from 29.3% to 23.8%) who used recently used cannabis. Over the same period, there were increases in the proportion of people aged 50–59 who recently used cannabis (from 3.3% to 9.2%). In 2019, people aged 20–29 (23.8%) and 30–39 (13.7%) were most likely to have recently used cannabis.

View data tables >

Cannabis use by age and sex

Since 2001, recent cannabis use has generally declined among the younger age groups (those aged 14–39), but has increased for the older age groups (40 or over).

  • Compared with those in other age groups, people aged 20–29 continue to be the most likely to use cannabis but this declined from 29% in 2001 to 24% in 2019.
  • Males aged 14 and over were more likely to have recently used cannabis (14.7%) than females (8.6%) (AIHW 2020, Table 4.43).

Between 2016 and 2019 there were significant increases in the use of cannabis among people aged 50–59 (from 7.2% to 9.2%) and 60 and over (from 1.9% to 2.9%) (Figure CANNABIS1; AIHW 2020, Table 4.43).

In 2001, the average age of cannabis users was 29 and this increased to 35 in 2019 (AIHW 2020). These results suggest there may be an ageing cohort of cannabis users.

Cannabis is used more frequently than other drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine. Specifically, 37% of people who used cannabis did so as often as weekly or more, compared with only 6.7% and 4.5% of ecstasy and cocaine users respectively. Males were more likely than females to use cannabis weekly (41% compared with 31%) (AIHW 2020).

Geographic trends

There was little change in the proportion of recent cannabis use between 2016 and 2019 for all states and territories, except New South Wales where it increased significantly from 9.3% to 11.0% (AIHW 2020, Table 7.14).

There was a significant increase in recent use of cannabis for people living in Major cities (from 10.4% in 2016 to 11.7% in 2019) (AIHW 2020, Table 7.15). However, after adjusting for differences in age, Australians living in Inner regional, Outer regional and Remote and very remote areas were more likely than those living in Major cities to have used cannabis in the previous 12 months (AIHW 2020).

For people living in areas of highest socioeconomic advantage, there was a significant increase in recent use of cannabis (from 9.4% in 2016 to 12.4% in 2019). Across other socioeconomic areas, at least 1 in 10 people had recently used cannabis (Figure CANNABIS2; AIHW 2020, Table 7.18).

Figure CANNABIS2: Recentᵃ use of cannabis, by remoteness area or socioeconomic area, people aged 14 and over, 2010 to 2019 (per cent)

The figure shows the proportion of recent cannabis use for people aged 14 and over by socioeconomic area for 2010, 2013, 2016 and 2019. Recent cannabis use trends were fairly stable across all 5 socioeconomic areas between 2010 and 2019. In 2019, regardless of what socioeconomic area a person came from, about 1 in 10 had recently used cannabis (12.6% of most disadvantaged socioeconomic areas and 12.4% of most advantaged socioeconomic areas).

Visualisation not available for printing

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The National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program (NWDMP) measures the presence of substances in sewerage treatment plants across Australia. Measurement of cannabis consumption was included for the first time in the August 2018 collection. It is important to note that an average dose was not defined for cannabis because reliable dose figures were not available. As such, cannabis was not included in the comparison of the highest consumed drugs monitored by the program. For further information, see Box HARM2 and Data quality for the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program.

Consumption of cannabis increased in many jurisdictions after the initial COVID restrictions were put in place in March 2020. Consumption returned to previous levels before reaching record highs in both capital cities and regional areas in August 2021 (ACIC 2022a).

Data from report 16 of the NWDMP indicate that the estimated population-weighted average consumption of cannabis in both capital cities and regional areas decreased in December 2021, with a further decrease in capital cities reported from December 2021 to February 2022 (data from regional sites not yet available). On average, consumption in regional areas continued to exceed capital cities (ACIC 2022b).

For state and territory data, see the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program reports.

Medicinal cannabis

Box CANNABIS1: What is medicinal cannabis?

Prior to 2016, cannabis was classified as an illegal narcotic under Australian law. This changed in February 2016, when the National Drugs Amendment Act 2016 established a national licensing and permit scheme to enable the cultivation, production, and manufacture of cannabis for medicinal and related research purposes. Under this scheme, specific patient groups can now access medicinal cannabis products under strict medical supervision. Cannabis cultivated for other purposes remains illegal.

Medicinal cannabis typically refers to use of cannabis that is prescribed by a healthcare professional. However, in the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, this included any use of cannabis for medical purposes, regardless of whether a doctor prescribed it.

In 2019, the NDSHS included 2 new questions regarding medical use of cannabis—if respondents had recently used cannabis for medical purposes, and whether the cannabis was prescribed by a doctor (AIHW 2020).

  • Of people aged 14 and over who had used cannabis in the previous 12 months in 2019, 6.8% always used it for medical purposes and 16.3% used it for both medical and non-medical reasons.
  • Of those who had recently used cannabis for medical purposes, 1.8% always obtained cannabis with a prescription and 2.1% sometimes did.
  • When asked about their usual source, around half (51%) of people who had recently used cannabis medically said they normally obtained it from a friend, and 22% purchased it from a dealer (AIHW 2020).

Compared with people who did not use cannabis for medical purposes, people who had recently used cannabis for medical purposes only were:

  • Typically older (43% aged 50 and over) than people who used cannabis non-medically (16%).
  • More likely to live in the lowest socioeconomic areas (32% compared with 20%) and Inner regional areas (28% compared with 17.0%).
  • More likely to experience chronic pain (53% compared with 6.9%), very high levels of psychological distress (27% compared with 9.7%) and poor or fair health (33% compared with 10.4%).
  • Less likely to have recently used another illicit substance (20% compared with 44%) but more likely to smoke tobacco (51% compared with 39%).
  • More likely to use cannabis daily or weekly (56% compared with 29%).
  • More likely to use cannabis oil (23% compared with 4.5%), and less likely to use leaf (27% compared with 51%) (AIHW 2020).

Poly drug use

Cannabis use is also highly correlated with the use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. This makes measuring the effects of cannabis alone difficult and potentially increases risks for users.

The 2019 NDSHS showed that alcohol was the most common substance used concurrently with cannabis. Of those recent cannabis users who also consumed alcohol, 62% exceeded the single occasion risk guidelines at least monthly and 39% exceeded the lifetime risk guidelines (AIHW 2020, Table 1.3).

The most common other drugs concurrently used by recent cannabis users were:

  • tobacco (29%)
  • cocaine (25%)
  • ecstasy (19.7%),
  • the non-medical use of pharmaceuticals (14.1%) (AIHW 2020, Table 1.3).

Data on alcohol and other drug-related ambulance attendances are sourced from the National Ambulance Surveillance System (NASS). Monthly data for 2021 are currently available for New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory It should be noted that some data for Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory have been suppressed due to low numbers. Please see the data quality statement for further information.

In 2021, the proportion of cannabis-related ambulance attendances where multiple drugs were involved (excluding alcohol) ranged from 42% of attendances in Tasmania to 49% of attendances in Victoria (Table S1.10).

For related content on multiple drug involvement see Impacts: Ambulance attendances.

Harms

For related content on cannabis impacts and harms, see also:

The effects of cannabis (like all drugs) vary from one person to another including, but not limited to, the amount consumed, the mode of administration, the user’s previous experience, mood and body weight (NSW Ministry of Health 2017). The active drug in cannabis makes its way into the bloodstream more quickly when cannabis is smoked, compared to when it is orally ingested. Ongoing and regular use of cannabis is associated with a number of negative long-term effects. Regular users of cannabis can become dependent and commonly reported symptoms of withdrawal include anxiety, sleep difficulties, appetite disturbance and depression (Hall & Degenhardt 2009; Nielsen & Gisev 2017).

An overview of some of the short and long-term effects of cannabis are provided in Table CANNABIS1.

Table CANNABIS1: Effects of cannabis

Short-term effects

Long-term effects

  • Mild euphoria, relaxation and reduced inhibitions
  • Perceptual alterations, including time distortion and intensification of ordinary experiences
  • Feelings of hunger
  • Panic reactions, confusion and feelings of paranoia – mainly reported by naïve users
  • Nausea, headache and reddened eyes
  • Increased heart rate for up to 3 hours after smoking
  • Dizziness, with impaired balance and coordination
  • Physical dependence
  • Upper respiratory tract cancers, chronic bronchitis and permanent damage to the airways when smoked
  • Cardiovascular system damage
  • Mental health conditions including depression
  • Poor adolescent psychosocial development

Source: Adapted from (Hall & Degenhardt 2009; Nielsen & Gisev 2017; NSW Ministry of Health 2017).

Burden of disease and injury

The Australian Burden of Disease Study 2018, found that cannabis use contributed to 0.3% of the total burden of disease and injuries in 2018 and 10.2% of the total burden due to illicit drugs (AIHW 2021b; Table S2.5). Drug use disorders (excluding alcohol) (11%) contributed most to the burden due to cannabis use, followed by poisoning (10%). Only a small proportion (3% or less) of the burden of schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, road traffic injuries and depressive disorders was attributable to cannabis use (AIHW 2021b).

Ambulance attendances

Data on alcohol and other drug-related ambulance attendances are sourced from the National Ambulance Surveillance System (NASS). Monthly data are presented in 2021 for people aged 15 years and over for New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.

In 2021, for cannabis-related ambulance attendances in these jurisdictions:

  • Rates of attendances ranged from 85.3 per 100,000 population in New South Wales to 134.1 per 100,000 population in Tasmania.
  • 3 in 5 (60%) of total attendances were for males.
  • Ambulance attendances for cannabis are typically a younger cohort of people, with the highest rates of attendances in people aged 15–24. Rates of attendance ranged from:
    • 214.8 per 100,00 population in New South Wales (2,102 attendances), to
    • 341.3 per 100,000 population in the Australian Capital Territory (187 attendances) (Table S1.9).

Figure CANNABIS3: Ambulance attendances for cannabis, by age, sex and selected states and territories, 2021

This figure shows cannabis-related ambulance attendances in NSW. The highest number of attendances were for males aged 15-24. There is a filter to select state/territory, drug and measure (number of attendances or rate per 100,000 population).

Hospitalisations

Drug-related hospitalisations are defined as hospitalisations with a principal diagnosis relating to a substance use disorder or direct harm relating to use of selected substances (AIHW 2018).

AIHW analysis of the National Hospital Morbidity Database showed that cannabinoids (including cannabis) accounted for around 1 in 20 drug-related hospitalisations in 2020–21 (4.9% or 7,500 hospitalisations) (Table S1.12). This represents a rate of 29.2 cannabinoid-related hospitalisations per 100,000 population (Table S1.13). Over 2 in 3 cannabinoid-related hospitalisations involved an overnight stay (68% or 5,100 hospitalisations), while the remainder ended with a same-day discharge (Table S1.12).

In 2020–21, over 2 in 3 cannabinoid-related hospitalisations occurred in Major cities (67% or 5,000 hospitalisations) (Table S1.14). When accounting for differences in population size, the rate of hospitalisations was highest in Remote and very remote areas (71.8 hospitalisations per 100,000 population, compared with 27.1 per 100,000 in Major cities) (Table S1.14).

In the 6 years to 2020–21:

  • the number of hospitalisations for cannabinoids increased between 2015–16 and 2020–21 (from 6,000 to 7,500 hospitalisations), with some fluctuations over time
  • accounting for population growth, the rate of cannabinoid-related hospitalisations was relatively stable between 2016–17 and 2019–20 (ranging from 24.2 to 26.1 hospitalisations per 100,000 population). Between 2019–20 and 2020–21, the rate then increased from 26.0 to 29.2 per 100,000 population (Table S1.13; Figure IMPACT4). Population estimates used to calculate rates for 2020–21 may have been impacted by public health measures introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. See the Technical notes for more information.

Deaths

Drug-induced deaths are determined by toxicology and pathology reports and are defined as those deaths that can be directly attributable to drug use. This includes deaths due to acute toxicity (for example, drug overdose) and chronic use (for example, drug-induced cardiac conditions) (ABS 2021).

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) analysis of the AIHW National Mortality Database showed that in 2020, cannabinoids were present in 5.9% (or 109) of all drug-induced deaths, a decrease from 11.0% (208 deaths) in 2019 (Table S1.1).

The short-term effects of cannabis can increase the risk of road traffic crashes, largely due to diminished driving performance in response to emergencies (Hall & Degenhardt 2009). In 2016, cannabis was the second most common drug identified on toxicology for transport accidents where a drug (excluding alcohol) contributed to death (ABS 2017).

Treatment

The 2020–21 Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Services Annual Report shows that cannabis was the principal drug of concern in 19% of treatment episodes provided for clients’ own drug use (AIHW 2022).

This was a similar proportion to 2019–20 (18% of closed treatment episodes) (AIHW 2021a).

Data collected for the AODTS NMDS are released twice each year—an Early Insights report in April and a detailed report mid-year.

The AODTS NMDS provides information on treatment provided to clients by publicly funded AOD treatment services, including government and non-government organisations. Data from the AODTS NMDS showed that cannabis was the third most common principal drug of concern in closed treatment episodes provided to clients in 2020–21. Cannabis was the principal drug of concern in 19% of closed treatment episodes provided for clients’ own drug use (AIHW 2022, Table Drg.4; Figure CANNABIS4).

In 2020–21, where cannabis was the principal drug of concern:

  • Almost 2 in 3 (64%) of clients were male and almost 1 in 5 (19%) were Indigenous Australians (AIHW 2022, tables SC.9 and SC.11).
  • Over two-thirds (67%) of clients were aged 10–29 (AIHW 2022, Table SC.10).
  • The most common source of referral was a health service (30% of closed treatment episodes), followed by self/family (27%) (AIHW 2022, Table Drg.28).
  • Counselling was the most common main treatment type (48% of treatment episodes), followed by assessment only (17%) (AIHW 2022, Table Drg.27; Figure CANNABIS4).
  • The median treatment duration for cannabis was 20 days (AIHW 2022, Table Drg.30).

Figure CANNABIS4: Treatment provided for own use of cannabis, 2020–21 (per cent)

This infographic shows that cannabis was the 3rd most common principal drug of concern, accounting for 19%25 of closed treatment episodes for clients’ own drug use in 2020–21. Almost 1 in 5 clients were Indigenous Australians. The most common main treatment type provided to clients for cannabis was counselling (1 in 2 episodes).

Source: AIHW 2022, tables Drg.1, SC.11 and Drg.27.

Where the most common drug of concern was cannabis, the proportion of people living in Regional and remote areas who travelled 1 hour or longer to treatment services was higher than in Major cities (25% compared with 7%) (AIHW 2019). 

At-risk groups

The use of cannabis can be disproportionately higher for specific population groups.

  • Marijuana, hashish or cannabis resin is the most commonly reported illicit drug used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  • The highest recorded number of arrests were those relating to cannabis and high proportions of police detainees and prison entrants recently used cannabis.
  • Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit substance among adolescents aged 12–17.
  • Cannabis is the most frequently used illicit drug for people who inject drugs.

Policy context

Public perceptions and policy support

There have been changes over time in public perceptions of cannabis use in Australia. Data from the 2019 NDSHS showed:

  • There was a significant decrease in the proportion of Australians reporting cannabis as the first drug they thought of when asked about a drug problem—12.4% in 2019 compared with 14.6% in 2013.
  • Only 2.2% thought that cannabis caused the most concern to the general community.
  • Personal approval of cannabis use by an adult increased significantly from 14.5% in 2016 to 19.6% in 2019 (AIHW 2020).

There have also been some associated changes in public perceptions about cannabis-related policies. For example:

  • the majority of Australians aged 14 years and over (78%) do not support the possession of cannabis being a criminal offence, which is significantly higher than the 74% reported in 2016 (AIHW 2020, Table 9.15)
  • 2 in 5 (41%) support the legalisation of cannabis for personal use (AIHW 2020, Table 9.26)

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