Do Dutch "Coffee" Shops Prevent Harder Drug Use?

By Jennifer Matesa 09/15/11

A respected professor claims that Holland's toleration of marijuana may decrease the drug's so-called "gateway" effect.

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The Dutch system of commercial “coffee-house” cannabis shops has probably increased the number of cannabis users in the Netherlands—but these pot smokers don’t seem to be moving on to harder drugs, according to a paper published yesterday in the journal Addiction. The findings tentatively support the Dutch policy of separating the cannabis market from “harder” drug markets. The study’s author, Robert J. MacCoun—who is a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and at UC Berkeley School of Law—told The Fix: “This new paper presents evidence that so-called gateway links to hard drugs seem to be weaker in the Netherlands.” He added, “The theory in the Netherlands is that the gateway is more sociological—if I start hanging out with marijuana users, and we buy from street dealers, we’re going to start coming into contact with harder drugs. The study seems to support the Dutch theory that if you can separate the markets, you can reduce the gateway.”

MacCoun compared Dutch data—on patterns of cannabis use, on treatment for cannabis addiction, and on sanctioning and prices—with the equivalent stats from other European countries and the US. He found that Dutch citizens use cannabis at lower rates than many of their European neighbors; that Dutch kids perceive marijuana to be less readily available than do American kids; and that the percentage of Dutch cannabis-using youths who become regular adult users is modest by international standards. The study also showed that cannabis users in the Netherlands are less likely to take cocaine or amphetamines than they are in neighboring countries. “What I can’t establish without a doubt is that the coffee-shop policy is the reason for that,” MacCoun told The Fix. “But it would be consistent with the original arguments by Dutch officials.” He added that while most cannabis users don’t become addicted, the evidence is clear that cannabis can get you hooked: “It’s a mistake to dismiss the risk of marijuana by calling it a ‘soft’ drug. Also, marijuana is increasing in potency—it’s becoming a harder drug. Growers are finding ways of increasing THC content.” Whether this increased potency will in turn increase its gateway potential is an important question, said MacCoun, that has yet to be answered.

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.