Peter Cohen (2001), Statement to the Select Health Committee of the New Zealand Parliament. Amsterdam: CEDRO.
© Copyright 2002


Statement to the Select Health Committee of the New Zealand Parliament

Peter Cohen

In Europe we now have a beginning of a database system, that makes it possible for people to find out what proportions of the population in the different EU member countries use drugs.

Although only in its beginning stages, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has a website that allows comparisons of the available data.

My recommendation is that the SHC uses this database. It can be seen that the 15 countries, after decades of well-intended drug policy aimed at suppressing drug use, shows highly diverse use levels. Between Finland's cannabis use in the adult population (9.7%) and that of the UK (25.0%) we find diverse countries like Sweden and Greece (13%), Spain (22%) and the Netherlands (18.1%) -see EMCDDA Report 2000 ref!!-.

It is possible to look at special groups (students, convicts, arrestees, etc) but it will be seen that these large differences remain.

It seems that drug policy is not really related to levels of cannabis use. It is probable that historical, cultural, economic and urban development variables may be complex denominators of cannabis use levels. These variables are interrelated in ways we do not yet understand.

In Europe (severe to mild prohibition regimes) cannabis use is lower than in the USA (with severe prohibition regime), and also lower than Australia and New Zealand (with moderate prohibition regimes).

We can say with some evidence behind us that we have to accept that in all countries with a Western culture, cannabis use has become a part of normal every day life - in different degrees and with different levels of social acceptance. A parallel can be made with male homosexual activity, which has now become more or less normalized in all these countries, in spite of a long history of suppression and severe social marginalisation of such people.

The Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam has just completed a large comparison project with the Universities of California, and Bremen, Germany. The topic was to compare patterns and careers of cannabis use and users between the cities of Amsterdam, San Francisco and Bremen. Experienced cannabis users were surveyed with the same questionnaires, showing that the differences between the three user populations are negligible. Also here it shows the differences in drug control have very little impact (Cohen & Kaal, 2001).

The prime idea behind drug control policies, the suppression of drug use, has not been successful, and important drug policy differences do not result in differences in ways people use cannabis.

Clearly the criteria for creating drug control policy have to be less ambitious. We may however have some result in lowering levels of harm, such as incarceration, marginalization, and dose/purity-related preventable mistakes.

Modern drug control policies must allow for the fact that people are making their own choices in relation to drug use. Most cannabis use has started by the age of 19 years (in The Netherlands) and is finished by the age of 35. In between, many different careers can be seen, differentiated by taste and culture. The effects of policy on this differentiation are clearly minimal. If drug control policy would focus on harm minimization and good health information, the choices people make might be more informed, and mistakes made might be less harmful.

Criminalisation of production and distribution has never shown to be good for a society, be it with alcohol, cannabis and even other drugs. The regulation of demand and supply should be the focus of successful future drug control policies, although the precise ways to do so will vary between countries and time periods. No universal prescription for these policies should be given, as is now demanded by the global drug prohibition treaties.

For your information I have added the Title Page and the Table of Contents of the above-mentioned CEDRO Report.


Peter D.A. Cohen, Hendrien L. Kaal (2001), The irrelevance of drug policy. Amsterdam, CEDRO.