The return of the underground retail cannabis market?

Attitudes of Dutch coffeeshop owners and cannabis users to the proposed ‘cannabis ID’ and the consequences they expect
Dirk J. Korf, Marije Wouters and Annemieke Benschop
Bonger International Bulletin
Volume 1, Number 1, September 2011

The sale of cannabis to persons aged 18 or older is permitted in the Netherlands under certain conditions in commercial establishments called coffeeshops. The present Dutch government has proposed that access to coffeeshops be restricted to persons holding a cannabis ID, a mandatory membership card known colloquially as a ‘weed pass’ (wietpas). Recent interviews with 66 Amsterdam coffeeshop owners reveal that they expect mainly detrimental effects from the proposed measure. In particular, they predict customer resistance to compulsory registration, the discriminatory exclusion of tourists and other non?members, and a resurgence of cannabis street dealing.

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Two surveys of cannabis users (in a local sample of 1214 Amsterdam coffeeshop customers and a nationwide sample of 1049 last?month users) confirmed that many, but not all, users would oppose registration. The majority of respondents intended to look for other suppliers or to grow their own marijuana if the cannabis ID becomes law. Surprisingly, about one in ten said they would stop smoking cannabis.

Conclusions and discussion

Amsterdam coffeeshop owners foresee almost no advantages from the introduction of the proposed cannabis ID. They predict that it will compromise the privacy of customers (many of whom are expected to shun registration); that it will impose a discriminatory ban on foreign tourists and other non?residents of the city, which could eventually also have a significant impact on the local economy; and that it will trigger a revival of street dealing in soft drugs, thus weakening the current separation of markets and making hard drugs more easily accessible to cannabis users.

The coffeeshop owners’ prediction that many customers will resist the cannabis ID is confirmed by our survey of Amsterdam coffeeshop customers. When informed about the proposed ID, the vast majority of customers spontaneously answered that they would oppose registering to qualify for an ID, as did a substantial majority of current cannabis users throughout the country. Resistance slackened somewhat when respondents were presented with a strict scenario of compulsory registration; almost one in three said they would then register after all. The majority of refusers would opt for growing their own marijuana or buying directly from a cannabis grower, or for purchasing cannabis through other channels than coffeeshops, such as drugs delivery services, home?based dealers or street dealers. Some refusers would get others to go to coffeeshops for them, thus still indirectly patronising the coffeeshops.

Notably, over ten per cent of respondents said they would stop smoking cannabis if the ID becomes law. Coffeeshop owners did not appear to expect any such development, and it is questionable whether those who say they would quit would actually do so. After all, intention is no guarantee for real behavioural change. Similar uncertainty applies to the prediction – made by coffeeshop owners, customers and surveyed current users alike – that the cannabis supply would shift to the streets and other locations and to home grow.

A limitation to this study is that the surveys were based on non?normative convenience samples. Some caution is therefore warranted as to the generalisability of the reported percentages. That said, there were striking similarities between the two samples both in attitudes to mandatory registration and in the perceived consequences of the cannabis ID, despite differences between the surveys in terms of method (site versus online survey), geographical scope (Amsterdam versus nationwide) and respondent characteristics (age, gender, frequency of cannabis use). Displacement of the retail cannabis market to non?coffeeshop settings, as indicated by both surveys, therefore seems a very real possibility, although it is unclear to what extent and in what ways that might happen.

All in all, our surveys of cannabis users provide empirical evidence in support of fears, as expressed by opponents of the cannabis ID, that it will lead to a resurgence of the underground retail cannabis market and the accompanying crime and nuisance. Proponents of the ID will undoubtedly be keen to argue in the political debate that introducing the ID will help curb the use of cannabis.