Aims To examine the empirical consequences of officially tolerated retail sales of cannabis in the Netherlands, and possible implications for the legalization debate.
Methods Available Dutch data on the prevalence and patterns of use, treatment, sanctioning, prices and purity for cannabis dating back to the 1970s are compared to similar indicators in Europe and the United States.
Results The available evidence suggests that the prevalence of cannabis use among Dutch citizens rose and fell as the number of coffeeshops increased and later declined, but only modestly. The coffeeshops do not appear to encourage escalation into heavier use or lengthier using careers, although treatment rates for cannabis are higher than elsewhere in Europe. Scatterplot analyses suggest that Dutch patterns of use are very typical for Europe, and that the ‘separation of markets’ may indeed have somewhat weakened the link between cannabis use and the use of cocaine or amphetamines.
Conclusions Cannabis consumption in the Netherlands is lower than would be expected in an unrestricted market, perhaps because cannabis prices have remained high due to production-level prohibitions. The Dutch system serves as a nuanced alternative to both full prohibition and full legalization.