Cannabis use and proximity to coffee shops in the Netherlands

Marije Wouters, Annemieke Benschop, Margriet van Laar and Dirk J. Korf
European Journal of Criminology 2012 9: 337
July 2012

publicationThe aim of this paper is to assess the influence of coffee shop availability on the prevalence and intensity of cannabis use, as well as the effectiveness of the ‘separation of markets’ policy. A convenience sample of nightlife visitors and a sub-selection of previous year cannabis users were used for analyses on cannabis and hard drugs use. Logistic regression analyses showed that coffee shop proximity does not seem to be linked to prevalence of cannabis use or intensity of use. In addition, proximity of coffee shops does not seem to be linked directly to hard drugs use.

application-pdfDownload the article (PDF)


In this study, we explored the relationship between the proximity of coffee shops and cannabis use. We hypothesized that closer proximity to coffee shops would result in more cannabis consumption. This hypothesis was not confirmed, as we found no association between the distance from the coffee shop to place of residence and previous year cannabis use. In addition, coffee shop proximity did not predict more frequent cannabis use and larger amounts used. However, buying behaviour proved to be of influence: respondents who bought only in coffee shops were more regular users than non-buyers and (also) elsewhere buyers. In addition, they used more cannabis per occasion than non-buyers. When the logistic regression with previous year cannabis use as the outcome variable was performed for minors and adults separately, far fewer variables were of significance among minors, with previous year tobacco smoking as the only remaining variable. If, similar to what has been found in studies on crime (Broekhuizen et al., 2006; Reinarman and Cohen, 2007), younger cannabis users travel shorter distances, this difference could be explained by a lack of variation in the distances travelled by individual under-aged users, leading to less significant predictors in the analyses.

Our second hypothesis, that proximity of coffee shops is positively related to previous year use of hard drugs, was not confirmed either. First use of cannabis at an early age (before 13 years), however, was an important predictor of hard drugs use. For both frequency of cannabis use and amounts of cannabis used, being a minor increased the chances of belonging to the group of more intense users. It is a possibility that minors who are part of the population we studied use more intensely than other minors because we recruited them in nightlife venues, where other, less regularly using, minors might not go. Also, the use of cannabis by minors may be part of a deviant or delinquent lifestyle (Erickson et al., 2006; Monshouwer et al., 2005). Tobacco smoking, which was a strong and stable predictor of previous year cannabis use, of more regular use and of larger amounts used, may share this deviant lifestyle as a common factor.

Although this study is the first that focuses on the relationship between the availability of coffee shops and cannabis use with such large numbers of respondents, it has some limitations. We studied a non-normative sample and, although this resulted in a sample size that would otherwise have been very difficult to achieve, the results may not be generalizable to the general population. Compared with a general population survey, the prevalence of drugs use was much higher in our sample (Van Laar and Van Ooyen-Houben, 2009). Also, even though the survey was conducted mainly in non-urban areas, a large proportion of the sample lived within a 5 km range of a coffee shop, thus not providing a large range of travel distances. The average distance to the nearest coffee shop is a little lower: 4 km. However, this distance is based on the distance as the crow flies, whereas the travel distance on foot or by bicycle will always be larger. To persons living in other, larger countries, distances below 5 km may not seem significant, but in the Dutch situation it might be important to make further distinctions. The Netherlands is the second most densely populated country in Europe (after Malta3) and many inhabitants are accustomed to having facilities they use near to their homes. In addition, many young people in the Netherlands travel by bicycle rather than car, and therefore travel shorter distances in their daily routine than in most other countries.

Another limitation is that two of the outcome measures (more regular cannabis use and larger amounts used) do not represent very frequent use or very high amounts used. The variable for frequency of use distinguishes the more regular users from those who seldom use cannabis, but because the cut-off point for amount used was low (one cannabis cigarette per occasion) this did not represent a very intensely using group. Regarding cannabis buying behaviour, we distinguished three groups: non-buyers, coffee shop only buyers and (also) elsewhere buyers. It should be noted that the last group still purchased most of their cannabis at coffee shops. Conclusions on the relationship between cannabis buying behaviour and intensity of use should therefore be treated with some caution and differentiation between coffee shop buyers and (also) elsewhere buyers may be limited. In this sense, the situation in the Netherlands does not necessarily differ from the situation in other countries. Coffee shops may be unique to the Netherlands but the situation of cannabis being resold to friends or distributed among minors is similar (Snook, 2004).

In an earlier study we found that lower coffee shop density (number of coffee shops per 100,000 inhabitants) was related to buying cannabis on the illegal market. In the current study, proximity of coffee shops did not influence cannabis use but buying cannabis in coffee shops was related to more regular cannabis use and larger amounts used. In both studies, the objective was to identify the role of coffee shops but, whereas in the first study the emphasis was on buying behaviour, in the current study cannabis use was added. Even though minors are not allowed in coffee shops, they can still obtain cannabis through adults. Consequently, even for minors, proximity of coffee shops could still be of influence.

We based our data on distance between respondents’ residence and the nearest coffee shop. However, following the logic of the routine activity theory (Akers, 1984), there are other places people visit in their daily routines, such as work, school, shopping centres and other public places. Another criminological concept is ‘awareness space’, which refers to the places offenders know as they go about their daily life (Van der Poel et al., 2010). Within this space more crime is committed. Translating to cannabis, this would mean that users travel around places they are familiar with, taking coffee shops within this space into consideration only when looking for locations to buy and/or use cannabis. In the future, it would be challenging to consider daily routines, awareness space and nightlife activities and locations in analysing the relationship between proximity of coffee shops and cannabis consumption, including the times at which these activities are undertaken and the opening hours of coffee shops.

The ‘separation of markets’ policy does not seem to have much influence on the use of hard drugs. Having used cannabis at an early age was an important factor, confirming earlier findings (Van Laar and Van Ooyen-Houben, 2009) and thus indicating that this is a robust predictor of hard drugs use. It could be argued that coffee shops ‘radiate’ the concept of separation of markets to all cannabis users, meaning that this separation becomes the norm for all users, including those who buy (part of) their cannabis outside of coffee shops. Cannabis users might prefer sales points that sell only cannabis, even when these sales points are illegal.

In our present study, current cannabis use and the proximity of coffee shops were not correlated, but early use of cannabis might still be influenced by the proximity or availability of coffee shops. Findings from criminological studies show that criminal behaviour changes over time: there is a sharp increase in crime in mid-adolescence followed by a decrease in early adulthood (Cohen and Felson, 1979); studies on tobacco use show different results for the influence of proximity on initiation (Felson, 2006) or continuation (Baumeister and Tossmann, 2005; Lynskey, 2003; Lynskey et al., 2006). Therefore, in future studies, the development of cannabis use and buying behaviour over time are of interest. Research with a longitudinal design, where different stages of using careers are studied, can perhaps shed some light on this specific issue.

It has been suggested that a greater availability of cannabis might stimulate demand (Blonigen, 2010). In line with routine activity theory, one would expect that living near a coffee shop increases the chance of cannabis use, more regular cannabis use and larger amounts of cannabis used. Rational choice theory leads to the assumption that coffee shops would have greater appeal to more frequent cannabis users. From the results of this study it remains unresolved whether the presence of coffee shops stimulates more intense cannabis use (routine activity), or whether more frequent users more often buy at coffee shops (rational choice). Proximity did not play a significant role in our analyses.

However, buying in coffee shops did show a connection to more regular use and larger amounts used. One explanation is that cannabis users who use frequently prefer a continuous source of cannabis, which coffee shops provide. Thus, coffee shops may not cause but rather facilitate frequent use. In addition, when using cannabis regularly, it seems less likely that cannabis is always procured from friends. Consequently, frequent cannabis users can buy from either the coffee shop or the illegal market. It is likely they prefer the coffee shop to illegal retailers, since the coffee shop provides a reliable and legal source of cannabis. Conversely, less frequent users of cannabis tend to be occasional cannabis smokers, who never buy cannabis. Additional analyses with respondents who lived with parents only, and thus had little say about the proximity of their homes to coffee shops, showed that those who bought in coffee shops again were the most frequent and intense users of cannabis.4 Therefore, coffee shops might stimulate both frequency of use and amounts used per occasion, but longitudinal studies are required to determine whether this is a causal relationship.